The last decade has witnessed a rapid democratic backsliding marked by declining trust in government, institutions, and business and a shrinking space for a pluralistic civil society. As trust in public and private institutions wanes, increased polarization has greatly reduced reliance on facts, empirical evidence or non-partisan analysis in economic discourse. Even as these trends restrict the development of rules-based, open economies and responsive governance, they highlight the necessity of independent actors who can make sense of policy choices.

During these times of low public confidence, think tanks can help navigate the uncertainty by producing and sharing balanced analysis of policies and their impact. They provide alternatives to information monopolies and misinformation that can distract from meaningful solutions. Whether in day-to-day decision-making or in times of crisis and disruption, policymakers and the public can turn to think tanks for reliable information and structured policy options. Think tanks bring fresh perspectives and attention to new possibilities and policy alternatives and inject authoritative, insightful, and digestible analysis into public discourse.

In young democracies and transitional economies in particular, think tanks play vital roles in raising the quality of policymaking. These institutes bring new ideas to the attention of policymakers and the public, and new perspectives to the assessment and formulation of policies. Moreover, think tanks support cost-benefit analysis by weighing alternatives when government has competing priorities and limited resources.

Think tanks add value by supplementing political debate with policy analysis. Policy analysis clarifies how policy objectives will be met and weighs the implications of alternative solutions. This analysis offers a way out of purely partisan reasoning. Think tanks’ analyses ground political debates in reality and help uncover innovative solutions to societal problems.

Armed with the information that think tanks provide, policymakers and regulators can make better decisions. Civil society and the media can advocate for citizens’ interests. Inclusive markets can thrive. Members of the public can become more effective participants in the democratic process. Each of these groups becomes less dependent on prevailing or partisan sources of information and more empowered to identify policy choices that achieve social objectives in a cost-effective manner.

One of the great advantages of democracy is the freedom to openly debate policy ideas. Open debate allows the processing of complex information that is dispersed throughout society and the economy. Think tanks aid in gathering this information and broadening debate. They raise new issues, voice alternative viewpoints, and expand policy options. In so doing, they contribute to inclusive democratic dialogue for broad-based societal benefit.

This guide provides practical tools and peer experiences to support nascent and new think tanks in emerging democracies and closing spaces to tackle today’s greatest challenges. Illustrative cases from partners in Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Kosovo, China, Poland, Kenya, Bulgaria, Argentina, and Lebanon are meant to inspire think tank leaders with insights that will bring their organizations
to the forefront of the policy process. Each section of the guide focuses on core themes: role of think tanks; strategic positioning; stakeholder relations and communications; and influencing the policy process.

Opening Thoughts with James G. McGann

Building from a Strong Foundation: Winning Strategies for Think Tanks
About James G. McGann, Ph.D.
  • What advice would you have for new or nascent think thanks, or think tanks operating in difficult environments?

    The new business model is that you cannot have a think tank executive that learns the role on the job. Think tanks need leaders who come with a set of experiences in this highly competitive environment. In the past, people who were researchers or were well-organized managers became the presidents of think tanks. That is not going to work anymore. The margins are too thin, the competition is too intense, and for those reasons, the people who lead think tanks must be seasoned executives who are social entrepreneurs.

    It is a different type of leadership. Such a person is not an academic, but someone who has social media savvy, who is an effective business manager, and who has an entrepreneurial spirit both in terms of raising funds and as a policy entrepreneur that can put together a team. Consistently producing quality research is also essential because you are only as good as your last good idea. This is the product of a skilled team that knows where the information is and what technology it can use to provide timely and useful insights to diverse audiences.

  • What are some considerations for financial sustainability for think tanks in emerging markets?

    Think tanks often fall into the trap of focusing on money when discussing their priorities. Yet, having more money by itself does not make for better organizations. Especially now, with the power of data and technological innovation, think tanks may not need a lot of money to be highly disruptive and effective, so it is important to focus on what is beyond the financial aspect.

  • As the traditional sources of funding for think tanks are drying up, what are the new potential funding streams that they should be thinking about while staying independent?

    If you are creating value and targeting the right people and can monetize that, you will reap benefits. In a world where you can raise money online for your sick cat, you should be able to raise money for important think tank work if you can articulate it well. The issues are compelling enough that crowdsourcing can be an option and some think tanks are doing it effectively.

    In terms of both sustainability and independence, diversification of funding is key. The only way to be truly independent is to have a diversified base of funding where no single donor can dictate the research agenda. However, money is not the only dimension that assures independence. Independence is linked to three key factors: legal independence within a proper regulatory framework; financial independence with a mechanism to assure that the institution can be funded; and institutional independence to create a firewall between executives and scholars.

    What is more, it is important to understand that diversified funding is meaningless if there is no adherence to basic social science research standards. As is the case with China, for instance, if there is no adherence to critical thinking, replication of results, and access to data, what does independence really mean?

  • Do you see any positives in this rapidly changing environment?

    There are many positives. Clearly, there is a role for think tanks to harness data analytics. Think thanks are uniquely positioned to be the arbiter of what is fact and what is fiction. Increasingly, policymakers are relying on them because they do not know who or what information to trust. Institutions can build on that credibility to reposition themselves and harness those technologies to enhance research and fundraising. Effective communication will then make major contributions toward maintaining relevance.

  • You mention how crucial the internet and new technologies have become in terms of messaging and marketing. How can think tanks adapt the delivery of their message to be more sustainable in the online era?

    From meetings I have had in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa, the reality is that you can do this very effectively and cheaply. The fundamental problem is the academic model of a think tank, which I think is dead. Ideas matter and research and analysis will continue to be the core mission of think tanks but ideas only matter when they are in the right form, in the right hands and at the right time. In an information rich world it is not enough to have great ideas you need to know how to promote and disseminate them. Think tanks need to be smarter, faster, and more mobile to be more successful. For instance, the New York Times created the Idea Lab, which transformed the newspaper in terms of how it presents and delivers content. The content did not change; how they delivered it has changed and they now have more subscribers than ever. That is what think tanks need to do. You can produce a summary of a publication in a digital media format to draw people in, and then hopefully they buy the book or read the policy paper.

    In terms of the 8,000 think tanks in the world, the majority are academic but those that are successful and pushing the envelope harness technology to increase resources. The bottom line is that government funding for think tanks globally is going to dry up and international donors are going to dry up as well. It is, therefore, more crucial than ever to develop funding models based on new technologies in those regions where the resources and traditions of civil society and philanthropy are not well developed. The implications can be catastrophic if they do not adapt.

  • Have you seen successful strategies that think tanks apply to stay relevant with different audiences, be it policymakers, the business community, or the public?

    I hate to be negative, but most think tanks are oblivious to this. I think ignoring the general population as an audience is a mistake. You need to have a highly sophisticated and diversified set of products and you need to have sophisticated targeting, marketing, and distribution — and technology makes that possible. There are mechanisms you can leverage to increase your effectiveness in segmenting and reaching target audiences, but most think tanks are oblivious to this.

    There are those that have pieces of it, like the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (Fundação Getúlio Vargas, FGV) in Brazil. In an election year, they were able to tell in real time, in every state and municipality in Brazil using big data, what the primary interests of citizens were. In Mexico, Ethos Public Policy Lab created a comic book on corruption and had over a million copies in circulation focusing on the importance of confronting corruption. These are encouraging examples.