Is your funding model a good friend to your research?

[Editor’s note: This post is part of a series that looks into think tank funding models. It is based on a course that Politics & Ideas has delivered to a group of think tanks in Central Eastern Europe and Nepal]

When think tank managers and members are worried about their funding models, it is frequently related to periods in which incoming funds are not that certain or are less than expected…concerns about being more proactive and creative increase. This sometimes leads to further reflections on how the model could be improved.funding

However, at certain points it could make sense to re-visit the existing model to discuss and analyse its implication on three core functions that most think tanks regard as essential to their mission: research, policy influence and communications.

Raising awareness on these implications is a first step to assess how appropriate our current funding model is for the way we want to conduct research, communicate with key stakeholders, and influence policy. In fact, not making these links more explicit and avoiding deep organisational discussions about them deters a think tank from the possibility of re-thinking about the viability and soundness of its intended identity (mission, objectives, main attributes and values, etc.)

In this first post, we will delve into implications on research. In this sense, how do funding model choices affect a think tank’s ability to produce high quality research on policy issues? There are two types of consequences that many think tanks have experienced in diverse degrees: the research agenda and independence. It should be noted that these categories are intertwined, and that we analyse them by contrasting the two main models: core funding and contracts/grants. 

Research Agenda

The scope and sustainability of a research agenda is essential to a think tank’s purpose. In this sense, core funding enables think tanks to design their research agenda ‘on their own’ and sustain it for a long period, possibly focusing on core issues (e.g. political reform, education, public services, security, international affairs). This should be also reflected in the composition of its staff, which should come from the prioritised disciplines and have the right capacity so as to effectively cover the core issues and strengthen the think tank’s reputation on its areas of expertise. A potential risk of this way of building the research agenda in this autonomous way is that the selection of topics and the frameworks to address them get isolated from other relevant stakeholders such as government, civils society groups, etc. There is less external pressure to make research useful and practical and this consequently may diminish potential for policy influence.

Funding based on contracts and grants, by contrast, entails more flexibility in terms of addressing new topics as well as giving up topics that do not offer new funding opportunities. This is because donor priorities change over time in line with new ‘trends’ or the appearance of captivating policy ideas (e.g. ‘poverty alleviation’, ‘green economy’, ‘urban mobility’, ‘data access,’ gender issues’). In turn, temporary specialists are often required. However, by responding largely to external demand, chances increase that the research topics and how they are generally addressed become more relevant and are more directly used by those who demand it.

Overall, there is a trade-off between a stable but less dynamic (and sometimes relevant) research agenda (and research roster), and a more flexible but potentially less coherent research programme, many times mostly focused on short-term needs.


Second, the think tank’s autonomy to determine which issues matter the most and the viewpoint it adopts can also be affected by the choice of a funding model. The standard argument for loss of independence has to do with the source of the funding: For example, if a research project on extractive industries is funded by a mining corporation, the insight it offers might be considered biased.

In this case, however, affecting a think tank’s independence may also result from the manner in which funds are provided – that is, the funding models we have been discussing. Short-term grants, even if coming from a ‘clean source’ might limit the space a think tank has to develop ideas and research questions about an issue. Likewise, if the project is fully drafted by the donor and the think tank merely executes the research, its intellectual possibilities are reduced (Mendizabal 2012a).

Special attention in this topic is deserved by governmental funding. As stated by Struyk (2015) lack of independence is the main concern for most think tanks. Even if the results of the research are meant to be public, and the contracting agency has no explicit say in them, there is the risk of self-censorship to ensure client satisfaction.

These risks are mitigated by having a diversified funding base, and are also less likely when the work is of a very technical nature (as opposed to projects with a strong political or ideological component).

Finally, independence may be reduced by the types and number of affiliations a think tank holds. A priori, multiple affiliations sound like a better idea than a single one (e.g. to a political party or to one foundation with an explicit ideological stance). However, if the terms of a single funding relationship are protective enough of the think tank’s independence, an affiliated think tank may be in a better position to provide independent advice than a non-affiliated one (Mendizabal 2012a). Impressions of partiality could also result from the affiliations that staff or board members might have with government officials or parties that provide funding.


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