Capacity building for think tanks


Recently I have been asked to briefly describe my ideal concept for capacity building to think tanks. Many donors have entered this difficult territory, many reaching only a limited success. Think Tank Fund that I lead has neither been involved in a full-fledged capacity building program for think tanks / policy research, nor does it plan to do it in near future. Yet, the thought of thinking and designing an overall capacity building program is intellectually stimulating and operationally challenging, so I dare to lay bare some of the foundations that such undertaking I believe should be built on.

Shortly, below I describe the underpinning rationale for such a capacity building effort (could be carried out at a national or regional level), the modes of intervention (instruments), the levels of complexity this effort should address / be ran at, and finally I provide a non-exhaustive list of topical areas most capacity building activities for think tanks could include. The first part is most developed, the three other hopefully will serve as food for thought for successive blog posts.

1.       Principles for capacity building of think tanks

–          (Donors, be aware!) Training is provided only to those who demand it. Those think tanks that are not aware of their needs are offered only possibility to debate / exchange opinions with experts or peers, but are not offered training opportunities or included in other capacity building activities. Note: I understand that the devil’s advocates or critics will immediately comment that often the developed think tanks are not aware of their shortcomings of needs for fine-tuning and donors could nudge them in that direction. Frankly, donors are kidding themselves. Until think tanks do not realize the need by themselves and demand the very improvement, the effort would be with low return at best, if not futile.

–          If donors want to raise awareness, it is best to invite TT leadership to exchange practices, discuss issues and hopefully realize gaps in their own performance (and perhaps request some training as a follow-up from the donors). It TT still think they are very good and they do not need improvement, donors should fund their competition that is readily to make the investment and challenge the incumbent (or star think tank).

–          Interventions need adaptive designs that avoid issuing prescriptions (and one-size-fits all solutions) and are non-linear in nature.

–          Mentoring, on-the-job training and learning, peer-to-peer and expert exchanges should take precedent ahead of one-off and short training activities

–          Mid- and long-term time horizon is a must in almost all capacity building efforts

–          Skills-building has to be linked with development (design / production) of a concrete product. For example, if the subject is policy writing, then the recipient (of the capacity building) should author or co-author a policy brief (that ideally will be published). Most of the skills building could be done in similar manner.

–          Most of the capacity building efforts will need a wider organizational buy-in, even if only one person per organization is trained / developed.

–          The efforts should have clear calculation / benchmarks of the cost per participant ($USD or EUR/ participant). To date, I have seen quite a few costly activities, where the investment per participant has gone over 10,000 $USD. As a colleague of mine put it some time ago, this is the cost of an average one-year master program at a solid university in Europe (and not only in Eastern Europe). While, the MA degree and the capacity building are not directly comparable, it useful to keep this and similar parallels in mind.

–          Donors should charge a participation fee almost as a rule! The fee could be a percentage of the total cost (10% or more of the total costs to beneficiaries). The charge could vary from recipient to recipient depending on their income level. However, the vital principle is the TT not to receive the capacity building from free. The participation fee will be an amount that TTs will have to scrap from their existing budgets (but, hey these monies are also from the donors. OK, I am aware it is not so easy J). Deciding to invest in the capacity building from the scarce funds think tanks possess means they will not approach the possibilities as getting a ‘free lunch’. Instead, it is more likely that they will think through and decide if they really need it. (If there are disadvantaged groups in a given cohort / think tank scene, they could receive vouchers / subsidies – but never 100% coverage)

–          Demand / competition for offered places. One indicator for relevance of a given capacity building that I really like is for each slot available to have registered minimum two applicants. Healthy competition not only helps the organizer to select the best, but it is also an indicator for the demand on the given subject in the field. It is always easier to organize the the follow up if there is a real demand that outstrips the supply of capacity building.

2.       Levels of complexity / tiers of training efforts

One of the key complaints I have heard from participants at training courses is the difference in quality levels between the participants in a given training group. Often, this has affected motivation of participants and undermined the otherwise solid content and delivery. Therefore, each capacity building program (sometimes it makes sense to apply the same logic to specific activities) should determine at least three levels: basic, intermediary and advanced. While the introduction of three tiers does not automatically mean addressing all of those, it helps donors/supporters to have a better focus.

Basic tier:

Some examples include: novices, junior researchers, fresh arrivals from university (for building research competence); researcher (sometimes even senior), managers and the juniors listed above (for communication and advocacy of research findings)

Intermediary tier:

Some examples include: researchers, senior researchers (for example for new methodology etc.) .

No need to continue describing, the logic is self-evident.

3.       Forms of capacity building

    1. Embedded in grant making: core grants (a developmental component) or project grants ( usually capacity needed for achievement of the project goals)
    2. Separate lines of support (individual or small teams): mentoring, coaching, peer-to-peer exchanges, twinning senior with junior researchers / communication specialists ( or other profiles), collective learning grants
    3. Training events or series of activities

Note: I plan on writing a separate blog post on this item alone. The above list is far from exhausitve.

4.       Clusters / topics for capacity building

    1. Building / improving technical research capacity (research methodology, policy writing)
    2. Building / improving communication and advocacy
    3. Organizational capacity , management and governance
    4. Building capacity in specific subject area (related to a specific theme)
    5. Promoting and training for a specific method

To be continued. Your comments are more than welcome.



Receive new post in your Inbox.


  1. Joe Barnett says

    Goran, speaking of think tanks, I read with interest your earlier post on the deficiencies of the Global Go-To Think Tank ratings from Penn. I wondered if you have written on or recommend any alternative approach?
    Joe Barnett, Director of Policy Research
    National Center for Policy Analysis


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *