Most of the think tanks that take our online course on “Re-thinking your funding model” indicate that enhancing their sustainability is one of the major drivers to invest in this type of capacity building. It is one of the most frequently used concepts when discussing funding challenges and objectives, and ever often emerges as a “dream” or a goal too large to be achieved.
Knowing this, at P&I we welcome the opportunity to revisit what sustainability can really mean for a policy research organisation today. It is not about securing the magical endowment that will allow you to do the research you want to do happily ever after…it is mostly linked to working on your capacity use and secure enough resources to do most of the work you would like to do: this means not only the ability to attract financial support but also to align it as much as possible to the core programs and values of the organisation and to invest it efficiently so that it does not erode your future goals and identity.
To this end, it is worth asking ourselves: Where does the idea of sustainability come from? An already established buzz-word, sustainability was originally associated with integrating the environment and the use of natural resources with economic growth. The idea behind sustainable development is quite simple: in pursuing a decent quality of life today (including substantial improvements for the world’s poor), we should not compromise the possibilities of future generations. To do this, many questions have to be asked and many compromises need to be found: between growth and environmental protection, between the consumption and adaptation efforts of developed and developing countries, between city dwellers and rural livelihoods, inter alia. In sum, needs should be consciously reconciled with limitations, particularly considering how things unfold across different countries and regions, and over time (United Nations; International Institute for Sustainable Development).
It is a bit difficult to think about think tanks over a long time period, like a century. In this field, an organisation with a decade of history is already a senior one. However, there is no reason to think that their contribution will be unnecessary in 10, 15 or even 25 years, and hence it is pertinent to consider how the decisions we make today will affect the future of the organisation. By the same token, it is important to think about how changes in the political and funding environments that are already underway in an organisation’s region or elsewhere (e.g. in the main donor countries) may affect the future of a think tank – a theme that has been already discussed. Moreover, the idea of ‘a decent quality of life’ could be readapted within our context to refer to the capacity to preserve the think tank’s core identity and main working principles. Decisions made today can affect in the mid and long term the possibility to remain being who we want to be or become who we want to become.
Now, the assumption is simply that an organisation has to reconcile what they want to do with what can be feasibly sustained over time. Limited time available to try new things out should also be taken into account. The key proposition in this regard is to consider the trade-offs that would result from pursuing your goals and desired changes as well as from exogenous changes, in order to make realistic decisions.
Building a sustainable think tank entails difficult decisions: knowing what to change and what not to change, prioritising potential avenues to get where one wants to go and being able to detect where the low hanging fruit is, and choosing how to move forward and where not to go (at least in the short term). Sometimes it is necessary to abandon a programme which is no longer financially viable even if it’s policy relevant. To the contrary, it may be sometimes advisable to keep working on a line of research that a think tank would otherwise drop if it helps to secure indispensable resources or to keep a donor engaged. The same goes for central services. Many organisations have a drive to create and sustain new and highly valued functions like communications, policy influence and monitoring and evaluation. Which of these and what parts of their work are essential? Should they be created just because they are currently financially viable? Like with research, in some circumstances it may be necessary to downscale an area that is no longer possible to finance while in a different circumstance it may be advisable to reinforce an existing area (or create it from scratch) to be better prepared for a bid (e.g. to have the administrative capacity to absorb a European grant, or to have the advocacy skills expected by a particular donor or project).
These scenarios illustrate how strategic decision-making is not just about embarking on new projects or ambitious reforms but also about difficult calls that inevitably carry some costs. Courage and audacity (which are key qualities in good leaders) work both ways.
To sum up, to enhance sustainability entails some degree of walking away for our comfort zone and challenging our assumptions on how we should look for funds and use them. To do this, one needs to find the right balance between in pursuing a decent quality of policy relevant research work today (including, for example, providing technical assistance to a subnational government or creating a communications unit to reach new audiences), but without compromising who we want to be today and in the near future.