[Editor’s note: This post was written by Orazio Bellettini, Director of Grupo FARO in Ecuador. It is part of a series of posts emerging from a long term mentoring project that also includes ASIES, in Guatemala. It was also published at the blog Onthinktanks]
When Grupo FARO was established in December 2004, its founders decided to create an Advisory Council (see here for more types of think tank boards) integrated by a group of reputable individuals with distinguished trajectories in different professional paths and a clear commitment to public service. This collegiate body was formed by scholars from different countries, including Augusto de la Torre and Rafael Correa from Ecuador, Andres Velasco from Chile and Merilee Grindle from the United States. Their support was crucial for FARO’s first steps, since by taking part in the Advisory Council they transferred their personal legitimacy onto the organisation and encouraged others to support the idea of establishing an independent, non-partisan, pluralistic, and secular think tank in Ecuador.
During the initial years of FARO, the Advisory Council’s main role was to suggest which topics and objectives should be pursued by the organisation. In some cases, they participated alongside staff members in meetings with potential donors, and in other cases they provided contacts with institutions and individuals that could be interested in supporting Grupo FARO’s nascent work. However, as the organisation’s workload became increasingly complex, it became clear that it needed an additional body that could be more actively involved in the think tank’s strategic decision-making processes. Grupo FARO needed more professional support.
As a consequence, with the support of leading scholars with experience in setting up NGO boards and based on best practices from think tanks in Latin America and the world, Grupo FARO reformed its Statute in 2012 to establish a Board of Directors with the legally recognised competence to govern the organisation’s most important processes. The Board was established as Grupo FARO’s highest governing body, whose collegiate members represent diverse professional, political, religious, and cultural backgrounds, and whose participation adds value to different aspects of the organisation’s work.
In said statutory reform it was established that the Board would be made up of a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 7 members (chosen by the members themselves), who would nominate a President for four-year periods. Additionally, the Executive Director would now participate in it without vote and would serve as its Secretary.
According to the new Statutes, some of the functions of the Board are the following:
- Oversee the accomplishment of the organisation’s mission, vision, values, statutes and policies;
- Approve the Code of Conduct;
- Look after Grupo FARO’s technical and financial sustainability;
- Approve the organisation’s investment and financial management policies;
- Choose, and if deemed necessary remove, the Executive Director;
- Accept resignations, remove, and designate new staff members;
- Be informed of and approve the Strategic Plan;
- Be informed of and approve the Annual Operations Plan and the Budget;
- Be informed of and rule on the Executive Director’s reporting;
- Evaluate the Executive Director’s performance;
- Reform the Statutes following lawful procedures; and
- Arrange for external auditing, be informed about them and approve it.
Addressing strengths and weaknesses
The first (and current) Board at Grupo FARO is composed of 5 members with different professional trajectories and scholarly specialisations who were invited to participate on the basis of their commitment to the importance of having an organisation that carries out rigorous and independent public policy analysis in order to improve it.
These members are Susana Cabeza de Vaca (President), Carolina Portaluppi, Alfonso Barrera Valverde (+), José Joaquín Brunner, and Manuel Chiriboga. Their initial challenge was to establish and consolidate this body. Through a self-assessment carried out in 2013, they considered to have made progress in their ability to perform functions such as critically approving the Annual Operations Plan and the Budget, assessing the Executive Director’s performance, and participating in strategic decisions such as an overhaul of Grupo FARO’s research programme.
However, they also acknowledged that there remain substantial challenges in strengthening their role in other tasks, such as fundraising, serving as institutional spokespeople, and building partnerships with public and private organisations that further FARO’s mission and strategic goals.
In turn, with the Think Tank Initiative’s support, Grupo FARO and ASIES of Guatemala are implementing a process to strengthen their leadership and management skills. Strengthening their governing bodies is fundamental both for an effective internal functioning and to achieve external impact in public policy.
Grupo FARO and ASIES have been working closely with a team of mentors specialised in think tank management in a series of managerial improvements for each organisation. During the initial stage of this project, the existing literature as well as leading think tanks were surveyed to identify best practices in management. Additionally, the two organisations had the opportunity to exchange information and share their own learning experiences in terms of strengthening management and leadership skills.
Furthermore, the project has fostered the development of publicly available knowledge outputs related to these issues that can be of use primarily for other institutions devoted to public policy research. Ultimately these public goods could be used within a projected ‘Think Tankers Academy’ to develop future leaders for think tanks.
Looking into the future
After a full year of work, we have clearly identified key guidelines to promote Grupo FARO’s institutional development in line with its current standing as well as the political and institutional context in which it is embedded. Some of the variables related to Board strengthening that were identified during this process include adding new members that complement existing capacities with private sector experience and who are more tightly connected to regional and international knowledge networks, all of which will enhance Grupo FARO’s ability to face upcoming challenges.
In our experience, establishing and consolidating a think tank requires people, ideas and financial resources. Leadership is fundamental to attract people, create the conditions to generate ideas and to manage the financial resources that help transform those ideas into proposals and concrete action plans. Yet, unlike public servants who can count on Public Administration training programmes and business people who can turn to Business Administration programmes, there are no training platforms that cater specifically for managers that work for think tanks and similar policy-orientated institutions.
Hence, it is crucial to promote such processes to strengthen think tanks’ management skills in order to contribute not just to their governance and strategic capabilities. They should also seek to help them excel for their creativity, aptitude for innovation and an actual ability to produce high-impact knowledge that informs policy and practice to promote democratic, prosperous and inclusive societies.