How to Start-Up a Think Tank
You plan to start your own independent and open grassroots think tank? This document collects 10 years of experience within foraus as well as lessons learned from several foraus founders and local community members while starting up their spin-off think tanks abroad. We want to help you get on your feet as soon as possible and thereby share our collective knowledge on how to start-up a grassroots think tank from scratch! If you plan to found a grassroots think tank, you should consider some main questions and basic tasks from the very beginning. We advise that your main focus should address the following issues:
Before you start building up a core team, draft a business plan or establish relationships with local partners and potential supporters. You should first get an overview of the local think tank scene. Identify the landscape and then verify the need for a grassroots think tank on foreign policy. It is important to develop a distinct concept and a clear profile in order to find your niche within the scene. If there are already similar approaches active in the local think tank landscape, it could be an option to integrate those existing bodies into our global network instead of founding a new, but similar organisation. Try to avoid redundancy as well as direct competition.
During the starting phase, you should mainly focus on building a start-up team. An ideal core-team size hovers around 10 people with a variety of educational and professional backgrounds, skills (political know-how, law, IT, economics, business administration, design) as well as different political affiliations. They each should have a special skill that can support the development of your think tank, as it requires various expertise in building a successful and legal organisation.
Activate your personal network! Organise an outreach workshop (see details below) and systematically invite people with different backgrounds and expert knowledge that you already know. This can make things a lot easier in the beginning. Don’t forget that you will most likely spend a majority of your free time with this start-up team. Hence, it is important to have fun together, feel comfortable and promote a supportive atmosphere within your team. An overload of work and unrealistic goals can create a hostile working environment that leads to exhaustion, burn-out symptoms and consequently to failure. Always remember that you are building up a grassroots think tank that depends and relies on the work of volunteers.
How to build your core team
After you formed a motivated core team, you can finally take off and organise your first public events. Those initial events should be specifically aimed at different purposes:
- 1.Outreach Event within your Personal Network
- 2.Building Relationships with Partners & Supporters
- 3.Closed Events on Core Topics
- 4.Recruitment of Active Members
- 5.Establish a Public Profile and get Visibility
OTTN with the support of LARIX provides a dedicated knowledge resource on events, where you can learn more about how to organise events for different purposes. In this document, we will only focus on event formats that are mostly suitable during the initial founding phase.
As mentioned above, a closed outreach event with people from your personal network can help you find people who are motivated to support your idea, to found a grassroots think tank. The invitation process can be systematically aimed at individuals with a certain expert knowledge or a vast personal network, so they can help build a reliable and versatile core team. Polis180 started off with a first outreach event with three people, which then activated their wider personal network. The second outreach meeting with six people lead to a third event with ten people.
It is important to build up a healthy and friendly relationship with other think tanks in your environment. Organise an event where you invite established as well as young think tanks, think tank-related organisations as well as potential supporters with different focal points and political orientations. Shake things up a bit and try not to only invite organisations with similar ideologies. Especially in the beginning, it is advisable not to be associated too closely to already existing and established organisations or parties - this will help you form your own distinctive, independent, and unique profile.
An outreach to other think tanks and potential financiers is an important investment for the future:
- Firstly, you can build long lasting relationships with your competitors, who are also potential partners, for future joint projects and campaigns. Also, co-organising events with established institutions can help you reach a wider audience. The main message here is: we are not a competition, but a complementary addition to the think tank landscape.
- Secondly, you can meet with parts of the local foundation scene and present your vision and ideas to them. Try to show how your engagement and innovative work is an added value to them as potential financiers. A form of incentive or ownership is always attractive and can help you keep a sustainable workforce.
This kind of event aims to help you determine what topics you want to focus on in your think tank. All our grassroots think tanks established program groups that are dedicated to one specific thematic framework, such as European Affairs, Peace & Security or Migration. Again, make use of your personal network and get motivated people on board, who have an extensive expertise in a relevant field on foreign policy.
a) Applies if you did not identify your core topics (for programs) yet:
Polis180 organised an event with 30-40 people from their network who were interested to get involved. First, they asked the participants to write down their expertise and interests with two different colours, on white flip chart sheets that were scattered around the room. The participants were asked to bring some thematic order into the process. During a break, members of the core team identified “clouds” of expert subjects. Additionally, they selected one person per topic that behaved like a natural leader and asked them to lead the following sessions. The four most frequently mentioned subjects, built the foundation for those individual outbreak sessions. With this approach, Polis could identify a) topics with the most expertise in the room to constitute the core subject for future programs and b) find capable members who are motivated to take the lead within their organisation.
Organise a public outreach event to find like-minded people who are dedicated to your idea and are motivated to help building up a community. As a grassroots think tank, you are dependent on volunteers who consequently build the foundation of your organisation. Similarly to your core team, the pool of dedicated members should consist of a variety of people with distinct profiles. Strive for a diversified mix in terms of gender, age, origin, expert knowledge, interests and political orientation.
Consider to invite people from established think tanks of the network, e.g. from foraus, Polis180, Argo or Agora* etc. It is really important and impressive if someone can tell the success story of one of our open grassroots think tanks first hand! Also prepare a press pack with media coverage (press, TV, online) and publications that create an impact in the respective area of action of our member think tanks.
*By 2018, all new think tanks of the network were founded or at least heavily supported by former members of an established think tank like foraus or Polis180
b) Applies if you already decided on your program subjects:
Polis180 developed a small-scale format “Polis tea-time”. You invite an interesting guest (expert on a specific topic, i.e. journalist, professor or politician) to an informal meeting (10-12 participants) with coffee and tea (i.e. in a coffee shop). The participants and the guest can have an informal discussion, in an intimate atmosphere. If you invite interesting guests, it becomes very easy to convince people to participate. With the inherent success of this format, Polis180 was able to recruit a majority of their active members. Also, the small-sized setting is a) convenient to observe the participants and b) to socialise and getting to know one another. Core members can identify motivated participants and then encourage them to sign up for the newsletter, come to a meeting or consequently join the think tank.
As a young think tank, you need some positive publicity in order to generate awareness within the local political sphere, in academia as well as in the media. A successful approach is to organise a large high-level panel event with a keynote presentation from a known personality. Invite the media, academics, diplomatic missions, NGOs/NPOs, politicians and students who are interested in the broader topic of foreign policy. You need to provide a good moderator and speaker from your think tank who also leads the panel discussion. When organising a panel, bear in mind not to invite a group of male-only panellists, but rather a diversified field.
After you formed a motivated core team, organised your first outreach events and received some early public acknowledgement, you can continue your adventure and tackle next challenges on the organisational side.
Invest time with your core team to formulate a vision, agree on a common identity and draft a business plan. Where do you want to go with your think tank? What is your purpose? Which means and methods will bring you there? At this point, it is critical to answer those questions thoroughly within your core team, communicate those answers with your community and consolidate your ideas with the feedback you receive.
Another very important task is fundraising, which is often neglected in the beginning. In order to keep going (or only to start up), you need money for everything: for working tools, web hosting, events, catering, etc. If you managed to connect with foundations at your outreach event, you could hopefully get some valuable contacts to follow up on. Some foundations are happy to act as partners if you can offer them an added value to their own work or image. Co-organising events can also help you to reduce costs.
An organisation based on volunteers needs to keep spirits and motivation high. To keep a grassroots think tank alive, you need to feed the base: keep your community busy by handing out tasks to them. In the beginning, you can for example motivate a program group to organise an event on their subject and observe if they can handle the task.
Furthermore, give attention on a professional appearance. If you have a small budget, you can consider working either with people from your network that are working as graphic designers or in PR, or reach out to local art schools to get help for a professional CI. For an initial web appearance, you can for example use this: the Larix Starter Website .