As we close a new edition of the online course “Re-thinking your funding model”, we thought it would be interested to do a brief summary of what are arguably the main concerns for think tankers regarding their funding situation. Those following our series on funding as well as other resources will be familiar with some of them by now. Even if the challenges are already known, collective efforts to think about potential solutions remain the best way to face these challenges, which is what our course is all about.
Do I even have a funding model? Maybe I should have a proper strategy… Many think tanks share a feeling that is probably somewhere between frustration and sense of opportunity. Even if their organisation is relatively small and growing, they often have the impression that their funding model could be better structured. In other words, they feel that they need to develop an ‘actual’ strategy rather than making decisions as they go. It is true that funding models are usually not pre-conceived, and there is no perfect moment to overhaul them. However, it is also true that a careful evaluation of any funding scheme to consider alternatives is always a good idea. An interesting point that was raised is that introducing changes in moments of abundance may be very different from doing so in moments of scarcity.
Relying on project funding, chasing the money. It should not come as a surprise that think tanks continue to be frustrated by their need to constantly apply for project funding. This has a number of consequences. First and foremost, financial sustainability is not guaranteed, since every bit of funding is generally earmarked for a project a priori. Secondly, the organisation’s research agenda can be really difficult to follow. Institutional donors often change their priorities and views, which in turn makes some think tanks venture into new fields while abandoning issues that used to be their core. For instance, security issues have become less salient for donors working in Central and South Eastern Europe, pushing some specialised think tanks to embrace new topics. In the latter case, the problem is not so much to develop new expertise but to abandon what might be valuable research because it is no longer marketable. One of the main strategies to counter this is to develop guiding principles to be applied to any project funding possibilities. The guidelines can be substantive (i.e. related to the research agenda) or they can be policies like not working on projects whose results cannot be published.
It is becoming really competitive… Several changes in international development as well as domestic situations have made it harder for think tanks to be funded, and this is a recurrent concern. There are more and better prepared NGOs and competing think tanks, institutional donors turn to other regions as certain countries develop economically and stabilise politically. This is not surprising but it is still a great concern for many organisations. To cope with the new scenario, they start considering local sources of funding as well as trying to partner with other organisations at home and abroad which might open new funding doors – options that are not without their own challenges.
Income-generating activities? Sure, why not. Many think tanks are already doing it, and it sounds like a very good idea (at least initially) for many others. Getting ‘extra’ funding by doing activities like trainings, paid events, subscription-based publications or other services like polling, web design or accounting appears to be working quite well for some organisations. The upshot is that any revenues coming from such activities are completely free for the think tank to allocate. However, once these options are carefully considered, many organisations decide that they may not be feasible or that they may take the focus away from the top research priorities. Ultimately, it can only be decided on a case-per-case basis. It is always worth it to consider new alternatives for funding activities, but it should be done by actually discussing their feasibility as realistically as possible.
There are more challenges to be discussed in future posts. Two years into the funding course, with around 40 organisations having participated in 2014 and 2015, we believe firmly that networks of practice are the best way to think about common problems.