In a recent monitoring visit to a think tank, I was invited by the Executive Director to speak to staff about my perspective on the pitfalls they may face following a decade of Think Tank Initiative (TTI) support characterised by a rapid growth in funding and human resources. With TTI drawing to a close in 2019, and this think tank having reached its near-full potential in terms of operations, it is now looking to stabilise and consolidate by focusing on building organisational systems, funding contours and recruitment structures fit for its size and complexity. In my remarks, I found it helpful to use the metaphor of growth to maturity – from adolescence to adulthood - in the “life” of a think tank. While I conceived of this based on the specific situation of the think tank I had the privilege of sharing my thoughts with, I thought it may resonate more broadly with other think tanks in a similar stage of existence.

Editor’s note: This post is the second in a blog series on Program Officer accompaniment, edited by Shannon Sutton. 


“Growing Up”

The life of a think tank invariably begins when the vision of its founding member(s), driven by the passion to translate the vision into reality, leads to a first step of identifying like-minded, younger people, who have the fire in their belly and demonstrate commitment to the cause as much as to the founder’s charisma. A typical start of the journey is in small office, often operating out of a corner area within the founder’s premises. Initial leaders are usually hand-picked by the founder, and hence share a similar vision, commitment and appreciation of the opportunity to produce knowledge to make a difference. Organisational transactions are personal in nature, for instance with verbal approvals often sufficing for work to move forward. Systems and procedures are undeveloped, or seen as unnecessary at this stage.

Over time, the characteristics that make a young think tank successful can become obstacles to further organizational growth. Sometimes the founder’s vision can become outdated in a rapidly changing environment, and must be revisited to see if it is still relevant. Often, owing to the dominant nature of such leadership, even raising this basic question is challenging and often improbable. In some cases, the founder’s vision itself can become an obstacle that prevents the think tank from growing or evolving with the times.

The loose and personal nature of organizational systems and procedures that enabled agility within the organization can limit growth as well, as new donors demand greater degrees of financial and risk management. Often, this is very frustrating since formalizing these systems is perceived as a diversion from the larger goal around which the founding leaders came together in the first place. At such times, leadership typically chooses the path of remaining transfixed on the larger goal - often at the cost of not building the organisational pillars in a robust manner - or slides into focussing on the nuts and bolts of organisational systems and procedures, at the risk of losing sight of the larger organizational purpose. The table below summarises the shift in the nature of critical dimensions of a think tank as it evolves from adolescence to adulthood.

Drivers of Rapid Growth  From  To
1. Founder's Vision Binding Force/Charism  Fetter
2. Leadership Excellence Big Picture (Guiding the ship)  Nuts and Bolts (arranging chairs on deck) 
3. Leadership Commitment to...    
   a. Research Excellence Pushing Boundaries Enjoying the laurels
   b. Hiring Excellence Creating Job Descriptions Matching Job Descriptions
   c. Engagement Excellence Creating Opportunities Maintaining Databases
   d. Alignment with Founder's Vision Fuel for Growth Binding Constraint
4. Donor Funding Aha Moment Uff Moment
5. Regulatory Regime Enabling Destabilising










With rapid growth also comes the need to hire new team leaders who ideally share the same vision and passion for the larger purpose. However, the commitment to research excellence that is normally a hallmark of founding leaders sometimes gets pushed down the list of priorities for new leaders faced with the task of managing increased demand from its clients. A lack of focus on research excellence can cause immeasurable damage to organisational reputation and credibility and so maintaining a focus on this in a time of growth is critical. 

Managing for What you Cannot Control

Beyond the internal dynamics of an adolescent organization, two important external factors also shape the life trajectories of think tanks: donor behaviour and the local regulatory environment. Donors often hunt in packs, and tend to develop their ‘favourites’ over time. Both these tendencies reflect donor needs to mitigate risk and the imperative of maintaining financial and program accountability.  The downside of hunting in packs however is that they can also disappear in packs. Think tanks know this all too well. If think tanks can establish deep and extended social relationships with donors, this can influence donor behaviour; these relationships build trust and foster confidence. Understanding donor behaviour and the interests and incentives that shape it is critical for organizations transitioning into adulthood to grasp and must be factored into strategies for donor engagement. For instance, donors can be persuaded to help with funding diversification, especially when it is framed within efforts to achieve ‘financial sustainability’.

The regulatory environment is arguably even more challenging – more so every year - and the factor over which think tanks have the least influence. While extended social relationships across political parties and engagement with multiple stakeholders is one useful way to build as much protection as possible, there remains little by way of guarantees on how regulatory issues may emerge, in what form, and with what impact. This factor assumes special importance during the transition to adulthood since it is also when think tanks lose some of their agility in the name of organizational consolidation, as discussed above. Maintaining some agility to allow for adaptation in the face of regulatory change must be done consistently right, with little room for even inadvertent errors. Leadership and governance plays a vital role at such times.

Leadership and Growth

I have reflected a lot on these ideas through my engagement with think tanks in South Asia over the last eight years. Managing growth is challenging but can be done well with good leadership. This means effectively managing a group of smart, committed and passionate people to deliver - as a team - a product that is greater than the sum of its parts, while using methods and tools that produce best value. I have seen different business models achieve this in unique ways, but engaged leadership holds the key for it is what ensures an organization survives the transition from adolescence into adulthood.

Please note: These are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of the Think Tank Initiative.