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  • Writer's pictureClara Richards

Funding and research: a difficult matchmaking

[Editor’s note: This post is part of a series that will look at think tank funding models. It is based on an online course that is currently being offered to think tanks in CEE and Nepal under the Think Tank Fund´s support, led by Vanesa Weyrauch and Tomás Garzón de la Rosa]

In general, a lot of discussion on funding models is centred on key issues such as diversification and sustainability, with much of the concern of leadership around the financial implications of the current or desired way of generating and using funds. However, we should not underestimate the implications of funding models on three functions that most think tanks regard as essential to their mission: research, policy influence and communications.

We believe that raising awareness on these implications is a first step to assess how good and healthy a funding model in terms of allowing a think tank to effectively conduct research, communicate, influence policy, etc. In fact, not making these links more explicit and avoiding deep and sincere organisational discussions about them deters this type of organisations from the possibility of re-thinking about the viability and soundness of its intended identity (mission, objectives, main attributes and values, etc.). A think tank may be able to survive and even to count with a comfortable budget to retain its staff but end up becoming a completely different type of organisation. And, as Alain de Bottom has argued: “It is bad enough not to get what you want, but it’s even worse to find out at the end that it wasn’t even what you wanted”.

So, let´s try to shed some light into these implications. We will turn our attention in this post to one of them: research.

How do funding model choices affect a think tank’s ability to produce high quality research on policy issues? There are three main types of consequences that many think tanks have experienced in diverse degrees: staff & project management, 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.

Staff & Project Management

Choosing a funding model fundamentally affects the way the staff and the research projects are managed. On one end, a generous proportion of core funding allows think tanks to hire researchers and support staff on a permanent basis, which means that the organisation can manage their workload with more stability and certainty. Frequently they provide centralized services for project-management, preparing calls for applications, therefore allowing researchers to ‘focus on the research’. In sum, this comprehensive organisational structure can be solid and predictable, but also burdensome and difficult to change.

On the other end, purely project-centred funding models (i.e. through grants and contracts) necessitate (and allow for) contractual flexibility with staff members to accommodate for variation in the amount of projects and revenue created. It is not uncommon for researchers of all levels to have adjustable salaries tied to different criteria (e.g. performance, time commitment, goals). Additionally, in many of these think tanks researchers are completely in charge of looking out for funding opportunities and subsequently managing their research projects, including hiring short-term staff if needed. In consequence, staff & project management is more flexible for the think tank but also potentially a bigger burden for researchers (for example, they might face serious challenges in terms of ensuring the right team and profiles to deliver the expected outputs).

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.

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’). In turn, temporary specialists are often required. Overall, there is a trade-off between a stable but less dynamic research agenda (and research roster), and a more flexible but potentially less coherent research programme that may also significantly affect opportunities to influence policy, as we will develop further below.


Finally, 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).

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).

To sum up, think tanks continuously face the challenge on how to secure the needed support to retain high quality researchers who can feed with their work into a strategic agenda that makes up the core programs of the institution and that does not jeopardise independence. How to ensure a reasonable match between funds and research should be a recurrent debate in each organisation, that yields to specific decisions-sometimes also courageous ones such as discontinuing a line of research or maintaining a good income generating activity as long as it really allows to subsidise a policy relevant research program.

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