There has been a rapid change in the funding landscape for think tanks in Africa in recent times. For many years, think tanks benefited from receiving non-earmarked, core funding in support of their programmes from sources like the African Capacity Building Foundation or the Think Tank Initiative. 

For many, core funding formed a significant percentage of their funding mix. Recent trends however indicate that non-restricted funding is becoming less attractive to donors despite evidence that suggests this form of funding is an effective way to strengthen key players in the evidence to policy landscape.  Most African think tanks have reluctantly accepted that this is the new reality and as such need to respond accordingly by reviewing their business models. In responding to the current context, there is an associated challenge: managing the tension between survival and identity. In my experience, think tanks are too quick to chase funding for survival that is not necessarily in line with their strategic objectives, leaving them unable to deepen their core competence and compromising their identity. Here is why I think this is a mistake.

Surviving through identity

There is a strong temptation for think tanks facing sustainability challenges to forge partnerships and undertake collaborative projects that are financially beneficial but have little or no strategic value. For example, many think tanks are exploring engagements with and funding from the private sector. However, this is too often done without effective engagement strategies in place that define lasting benefits from the partnership beyond funding.  I have seen how concentrating on survival has moved a think tank into areas in which it has low or no expertise. This move risks compromising the quality of outputs produced, which in turn could adversely affect their reputation and future funding prospects. This response to a short-term need for funds ends up creating a more dire situation in the long-term.

From my perspective, think tanks should have a strong presence in their areas of expertise, and only take advantage of short-term opportunities that are congruent with their strategic objectives. They are more likely to survive by building a strong identity. To achieve this, think tanks must ensure that they are creating value around their core competence. 

How boards can protect and help build identify

To do this well, think tanks need to identify the relevant stakeholders who support their value proposition, determine the needs of these stakeholders and convene a discussion around common interests and agendas that can eventually lead to strategic partnerships. This is what will lead to long-term funding prospects.

Most think tanks already have great allies who can lead such processes for them: their Boards. Board members can use their various networks to assess opportunities available, helping their think tanks to forge partnerships and undertake collaborative projects with entities with similar interests. This can help ensure that strategic positioning efforts undertaken by the internal or corporate relations departments are grounded in wider political and economic realities. 

“But this is not what my Board usually does”

Sometimes, the members of a board engage with their think tanks only during board meetings with no interactions in between, except when there are emergencies that need their direct intervention senior management in think tanks needs to work with their boards to ensure that Board members engagement goes beyond merely attending meetings. The think tank on its part should provide regular updates to the board and not wait until board meetings. Constantly prying into the schedules of board members to scrutinise their speaking engagements could help in prompting the relevant board member to become aware of opportunities for the think tank during their individual engagements.

Boards themselves must also think carefully about what kind of Board members are needed to help with the organisation’s strategic positioning efforts. Board member skills needed at start-up differ from the growth stage when demand for the work is on the rise. Boards and senior managers should have a common view about the current status and future direction of organisational growth and ensure board members with the requisite skills are appointed. The term-limit system should also be critically adhered to at each term, to take the opportunity to refresh the board to match the skills and competencies as needed. The composition of board members should represent the areas the think tanks would want to engage in. For example, it is beneficial for a think tank looking to engage with the private sector to have a member on its board with private sector experience, to help enrich the discussions at board level with insights in the sector and ultimately contribute in crafting an effective engagement strategy. 

Positioning for success

Funders are always looking for new ideas and those think tanks with ideas will always have access to funding and be able to address sustainability challenges more effectively. New ideas attract funding, and those think tanks that build their identities around an ability to generate new ideas that meet the need of their key stakeholders will be well on their way to sustainability!

All of this is easier said than done, and there will always be unanticipated crises and unforeseen challenges facing think tanks. I am not saying that these prescriptions will guarantee sustainability. But in my experience, they go a long way toward it. If you have other views or thoughts, we would love to hear from you, so please be in touch with colleagues at TTI. 

Please note: These are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of the Think Tank Initiative.