In a recently published report, Clore Social Leadership Fellow Julia Slay interviewed more than a dozen think tank personnel and stakeholders from British institutions to gain insight about what makes their organizations tick.
A few takeaways from her work, "Impact: an enquiry into how think tanks create change," struck me in particular.
First, is the lack of meaningful measurement in think tank impact. It is downright elusive to quantify. Often that's with good reason. One of my favorite quotes in the report touched on this and was offered by Sarah Llewellin of the Barrow Cadbury Trust,
"(Our trust) funded Winnie Mandela's trips from the Eastern Cape to Robben Island all the years that Mandela was in jail there -- that was what the Soweto ANC activists said was needed to keep morale up. You try and write me an impact framework for that."
That's a rich reminder that valuable impact doesn't always fit into neat boxes. Also, savvy think tank leaders know how to see beyond metrics.
So how are think tanks staying effective? That's the next takeaway: Slay identifies four ways think tanks create change:
1. Introducing fresh thinking, new ideas, and re-framing existing ones into the public conversation. She notes, "Think tanks are in the business of generating new, politically relevant ideas, and of repackaging existing ones."
2. Gaining change in government policy, especially through access. Slay emphasizes that some of the more effective think tanks marry the ability to generate new ideas with specific policy proposals. If they have developed close ties with government officials, they can see success with advancing specific policy proposals.
3. Holding government accountable. Some think tanks Slay studied gained success through becoming governmental watchdogs. She also issues a caveat on this challenges of getting this just right,
"(T)he right conditions also need to be in place for this work to have an influence. The government usually needs to have made a public commitment through its manifesto or in policy in order for it to be held to account effectively. This means (they) are more likely to care about (their) track record on the issue, so an organization publishing data on its performance can push more action from government."
4. Gaining impact through people. Networking matters. People committed to particular issues circulating through the government and think tank communities help fortify and advance ideas, innovations, and approaches.
Communications are key.