What Makes a Successful Think Tank?

Digital | 29 January 2014 |

Since Rector David Malone took up the leadership at the United Nations University, I have the impression that everyone is reflecting upon the question of “What makes a successful think tank?”

It is nearly forty years since the UNU was launched as a think tank for the United Nations and its agencies. Well, actually our Charter does not mention “think tank” but instead talks about the undertaking “research into the pressing global problems” and “dissemination of knowledge.” This is exactly what a think tank does. One of Rector Malone’s goals is to significantly enhance the role of the UNU as a global think tank.

The Office of Communications is clearly viewed as an important vehicle to enhance the visibility of the University, its researchers and its research. But that is only a small part of what constitutes success.

Looking around on the web, I came across the Think Tank Initiative, designed to enhance the capacities of think tanks in the developing world. It is very well-funded, including support from Dr. Malone’s prior place of employment – the International Development Research Centre. In order to help other think tanks succeed, you have to a pretty good idea of what you are aiming for.

So lets reflect on what they have to say. First, success for any think tank is about impact. This includes engaging with decision-makers with a specific purpose – to influence policy, to raise new issues and the list goes on. It includes the ability to network and to maintain strong institutional relationships with policy-makers, media, donors and citizens.

They point to two essential factors for success of any think tank. To begin with you need quality research, that is evidence based, with sound methodology. At the same time, you need organizational effectiveness and this primarily involves integrating research, engagement and communications functions. There are couple of developments at the UNU in 2013 to address both of these. The first was the introduction of PELIKAN – an online system to collate and share data on all projects at the University. The second is the launch of a new team with the “integrating” and “engagement” functions called the “Centre for Policy Research.” We will share more on these initiatives in the future.

I would like to wrap up this post however with reference to the recent annual report from the Think Tank Initiative entitled Enabling Success. In that report, they explain the key elements for a successful think tank in three areas, which I share with you below.

Successful policy engagement:

  • Build strong relationships with decision-makers.
  • Identify and engage with other stakeholders and allies.
  • Engage stakeholders early, and often and over a long period.
  • Be open and transparent.
  • Understand the policy cycle and formulation process.
  • Develop in-house capacity for outreach, communications and advocacy.

Successful research quality:

  • Identify gaps where research can be helpful.
  • Develop a culture of evidence and quality data.
  • Use peer review systems to ensure quality.
  • Produce research quickly in order to be relevant.
  • Attract and retain a sufficient number of high-calibre research staff.
  • Collaborate and partner with academic institutions and other research partners.

Successful organizational effectiveness:

  • Strong leadership.
  • Reliable funding.
  • Clear vision and goals.
  • Strong board of directors.
  • Competent management team.

You are not (or not going to be) a successful think tank unless you can say “yes” we meet all of the above criteria.