Over the past fifteen months, Results for Development Institute (R4D) – in collaboration with the University of Washington and with support from the Think Tank Initiative – has undertaken mixed-methods research to further understand the relationship between context and think tank performance and to develop an explicit structure for defining and measuring context.
We are pleased to share the resulting report from this mixed method study examining the relationship between think tanks and context. Four linked empirical investigations—including a literature review and the input of more than 200 think tank executive directors, researchers, and donors from over 50 countries—form the basis of the study results.
A major contribution of the study is a new conceptual framework for thinking about context as it relates to think tanks and their decisions. This framework identifies and operationalizes four external factors thought to affect think tank decision making and outcomes; and four capacities think tanks develop and cultivate at the organizational level.
Of the four external factors, political context is of the highest importance to think tanks, followed by the impact of donors. Specifically, comparative case studies of Peru, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, and Vietnam led by the University of Washington suggest that levels of political competition and government effectiveness together impact the ability of think tanks to influence policy, and the strategies think tanks use to obtain their desired impact. Additionally we find that both international and domestic donors constitute the most important audience to think tanks. Quite often international donors confer a positive reputational benefit to think tanks, enabling them to gain credibility in domestic and international through their associations. At the same time, think tanks report the need to guard against the encroaching interests of any one stakeholder, in order to consistently produce high quality and unbiased research.
In addition to contributing to the rich think tank literature, we undertook this study to provide practical evidence that could be adapted and adopted by think tank executive directors and senior staff to develop strategies to address context – and ultimately to improve the effectiveness of their work. The practical applications to this research are drawn out of the study and will be the basis of continuing work in this area.