What Should Think Tanks Do?: A Strategic Guide to Policy Impact

What Should Think Tanks Do?: A Strategic Guide to Policy Impact

by Andrew Dan Selee

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Think tanks and research organizations set out to influence policy ideas and decisions—a goal that is key to the very fabric of these organizations. And yet, the ways that they actually achieve impact or measure progress along these lines remains fuzzy and underexplored. What Should Think Tanks Do? A Strategic Guide for Policy Impact is the first practical guide that is specifically tailored to think tanks, policy research, and advocacy organizations. Author Andrew Selee draws on extensive interviews with members of leading think tanks, as well as cutting-edge thinking in business and non-profit management, to provide concrete strategies for setting policy-oriented goals and shaping public opinion. Concise and practically-minded, What Should Think Tanks Do? helps those with an interest in think tanks to envision a well-oiled machine, while giving leaders in these organizations tools and tangible metrics to drive and evaluate success.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804787987
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 07/31/2013
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 782,061
Product dimensions: 7.70(w) x 5.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Andrew Selee is Vice President of Programs at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former Director of its Mexico Institute. He has been a congressional staffer and served as staff and on the board of several non-profit organizations. He teaches at Johns Hopkins University and George Washington University and writes extensively on international affairs.

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A Strategic Guide to Policy Impact


Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8798-7



When Marshall Bouton took over as president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2001, he knew he had a major challenge in front of him. The Chicago Council remained one of the premiere foreign policy think tanks outside Washington, D.C., but it had become increasingly inward looking and regionally focused, despite the success of its popular biennial survey of U.S. public opinion on global issues. He soon launched a strategic planning process that involved the Chicago Council's board, staff, and key stakeholders, and included a consulting role by the private firm McKinsey.

The most important question on the table was how to transform the Chicago Council's identity from an elite local forum for the discussion of ideas to a generator of new thinking for national debates on global affairs that could take advantage of its strategic position in the Midwest. Bouton notes that "in this day and age, you can't be effective as an organization unless you produce intellectual capital.... [you need] both presentation and production." The strategic plan, which ultimately was approved by the board in 2005, revisited the organization's very essence—what its mission was—and set a series of ambitious, achievement-oriented goals for the following five years.

Central to the new strategy was the idea of positioning the Chicago Council as both a locally grounded and a nationally relevant policy organization. As a result of the planning process, the Chicago Council began to designate half of its funding to global and national projects, although many of these remained firmly rooted in its geographical concerns, issues for which the Chicago Council had a comparative advantage. Two of its major task forces, for example, focused on food policy, a significant concern in the country's heartland, and on Muslims in the United States, given the high proportion of U.S. Muslims living in the upper Midwest. Both received extensive national and international attention since they also dealt with issues of national and global importance, although they built on issues of concern to the organization's local membership. The Chicago Council has consciously used its identity in the heartland to position its research agenda. According to Bouton, "We're not located in the political capital, Washington, or the international capital, New York, but we are still the premiere commercial city, located in the heartland, and it makes sense to leverage that location."

Indeed, the Chicago Council found that this planning process thoroughly transformed the institution. Its revenues rose from $4.8 million to $7.3 million in five years; attendance at its "Chicago Forum" programs jumped by more than 50 percent; membership increased by 49 percent; and its task forces, studies, and policy briefs received national attention and positioned the Chicago Council as a major force in international policy discussions. Indeed, the capstone event for its research on food policy was a major conference on food security in Washington, D.C., in 2012 that featured the president of the United States, the secretary of state, and three African heads of state, as well as other luminaries, and set the stage for concrete decisions on food security at the meeting of G-8 leaders later that week.

By gaining clarity on its mission as an institution, discovering its comparative advantages, and setting ambitious but reachable goals, the Chicago Council was able to position itself for a new role in public debate and to have both a local and national impact on issues of concern to its members.


Every successful journey starts by asking why. Organizations that know what motivates them and what they hope to achieve over time—their big-picture goals—are far more likely to make an impact than those that do not. Having a clear mission statement that captures the aspirations of the organization is an essential starting point for any planning process, whether it is a structured strategic planning exercise or a more ad hoc process. Indeed, the central role of having a clear mission to achieving success is true in think tanks, in other nonprofit organizations, and even in business.

The first crucial step for the Chicago Council in setting off on a new course was to rethink its mission statement. The old mission statement read,

The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to building global awareness in Chicago and the Midwest and contributing to the national and international discourse on the great issues of our time.

The revised statement approved in 2005 read,

The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations is a leading independent nonpartisan organization committed to influencing the discourse on global issues through contributions to opinion and policy formation, leadership dialogue and public learning [italics added].

The new mission highlighted two changes that the Chicago Council board and staff wanted to make to their role. It would be a "leading" organization and it would be "committed to influencing the discourse on global issues," not merely "committed to building global awareness." The revised mission statement pointed in the direction in which the organization hoped to go and set a roadmap that it could follow into the future.

The Brookings Institution underwent a similar strategic planning process soon after Strobe Talbott took over the presidency of the institution in 2002. Brookings, however, decided not to address the decades-old mission statement directly as much as try to understand the core values that make the institution tick and are the basis of the mission statement. Through a series of discussions first among the institution's senior leadership and then throughout the institution, staff settled on a set of three concepts that encapsulated the core values: "quality, independence, and impact."

This became a useful motto for the organization's external relations, but more important, the leadership and research staff used this exercise to develop an understanding of their living mission in today's context. Each word was the subject of extensive reflection and consensus building, as managing director Bill Antholis, who helped Talbott lead this planning process, observes. The term quality had implications for both hiring personnel and setting quality standards for institution outputs. Independence meant more than nonpartisanship, a term that was discarded during the process; it implied that researchers had to begin from a position of independence that leaves aside preconceptions and easy answers. Meanwhile, to understand impact, participants actually developed an entire theory of change, which was published as part of the first long-term strategic plan. Researchers are now asked each year to develop an impact statement for their work, which identifies how their efforts relate to this theory of change. The Brookings' form of strategic planning departed from the traditional model of rewriting the mission statement itself and instead encouraged staff to reinterpret the mission in terms that had contemporary meaning for their work.

In many ways, Brookings's approach stands as the gold standard for how to transform an institution of its size and history within a few years by getting people to focus on the key elements of what it is they do and why they do it. Far from an academic exercise, this effort to rethink core values eventually led to a five-year strategic plan and to significant changes in the way the institution operates, including developing a set of cross-cutting initiatives and beefing up Brookings's outreach efforts. By starting with a conversation about what the institution's core values were—the mission's meaning in today's world—staff were able to arrive at a set of practical steps that they then needed to follow to implement the core values.

It often makes sense for programs within a think tank to have their own mission statements, consistent with the institution's overall mission, especially if they have their own internal planning processes. The Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute, for example, has a mission statement that dates from its beginnings in 2003, but in 2008 the Institute's advisory board revised it as the first step in a long-term planning process. As with the Chicago Council, the main question was one of moving from an emphasis on "presentation" (convening events) to "presentation and production" (convening and developing new ideas). The board added a phrase about "developing new policy options" to the existing mission statement to emphasize a new direction in developing innovative ideas for policy that could cut across national and party lines. That change had significant implications that helped sharpen the Mexico Institute's focus on new ideas, expand the range of impact, and eventually bring in new sources of funding.

While not all organizations need to spend time talking about their mission statement, it is a critical thing to do at the beginning of a process of significant institutional change—perhaps the most important thing to do. However, during normal times successful organizations often find other ways of embedding the mission in everything they do, keeping it present as a guide for their efforts. That does not necessarily mean plastering it on every document (although some organizations do put a short-hand version of it on their documents), but rather making sure that the organization's core purpose is at the center of the organization's reflections on goal-setting. Many successful organizations live their mission rather than discuss it, but it may still be worth pulling the actual statement out from time to time, dusting it off, and making sure it remains a relevant source of inspiration.


When the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute decided to change its mission to include a greater focus on "policy options" it also set a number of ambitious goals. These included creating a major task force on U.S.-Mexico relations during 2008, an election year, and conducting a series of additional specific studies on four topics (security, economic integration, migration, and border issues) decided by the board in consultation with staff. The plan also called for a specific media outreach plan, and a new speaker's forum for high-level public figures from Mexico. All of these goals were clear and measurable, and had targeted dates for implementation. The Institute thus turned an aspirational statement, the mission, into a series of action statements, the goals, which provided a clear roadmap for implementation.

If the mission statement provides the organization's purpose for existing, the goals lay out the specific things that the organization wants to achieve in the short to medium term. For a policy research organization undergoing change, or simply looking at its next year of activities, these are often new initiatives and special areas of emphasis. As Paul Brest and Hal Harvey, the authors of Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy, write, "Your chances of success are greatly increased by having well-defined goals and a sound strategic plan to achieve them. The goals should describe what success should look like...." Having goals that are achievement-oriented also helps in evaluating success and learning from experience. As we will see in Chapter 5, evaluating impact depends a great deal on deciding prospectively what impact looks like at the outset. It is hard to measure success if you do not start off with an idea of what you want to achieve.

Similarly, when the Chicago Council revised its mission statement, it also set four practical goals in its strategic plan that flowed from its new purpose: (1) strengthen its forum in Chicago; (2) expand its contributions to national and international discourse; (3) develop a broad, sustainable base of long-term financial support; and (4) reposition itself in the perceptions of national and international leaders. Each of these goals was then broken down into component parts that set tangible markers for what success should look like.

For the Brookings Institution, goal-setting included two major initiatives considered priorities by fellows and staff: first, developing a new outreach strategy and, second, creating five cross-cutting issues that would bring together fellows across different programs to work together. Considerable details were dedicated to what these changes would look like and what they entailed. In the second Brookings strategic plan, a different set of four cross-cutting issues were agreed on for the next five years on the basis of issues that had then become salient.

Brookings, unlike the Chicago Council and the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute, is a highly complex organization with a budget over $80 million a year and five semi-autonomous programs that, in turn, include several centers, each with its own purpose and individual goals. In the largest think tanks, goal-setting at an institutional level is often less about setting specific program directions than it is about determining general directions and specific benchmarks for the health of the institution as a whole. In these organizations, specific programmatic goals are often best set at the level of programs or centers, which generally have their own specific purposes and planning processes within the larger institution. In contrast, the Chicago Council, which is a medium-sized think tank, has greater ability to set specific goals at the institution-wide level, and the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute, which is a program within a larger institution, can be quite specific in its programmatic goal-setting.

If mission statements inspire people to action and point the compass in the direction along which common efforts should go, achievement-oriented goals actually lay out the specific path to follow and provide clear targets. Institutions without a clear mission and goals often find themselves headed in several directions at once and lacking a sense of common purpose that gives structure to the many efforts undertaken, even if they are each worthy in their own right.


Before setting goals, it is useful to undertake a series of assessments that help the organization position itself. Most of these exercises are the subject of the next three chapters, which are about deciding on unique programming lanes, identifying key audiences, and setting in motion a plan to build the resource base. However, before we go any further, it is worth laying out the series of questions an organization may want to ask before it sets its goals.

First, What does the organization do well and not do well? Knowing the relative strengths of the organization is crucial to setting realistically ambitious goals. Everything from geographical location, institutional mandate, staff skill sets, ideological orientation, and past experience helps determine what organizations do well. It is sometimes worth pushing the organization to move into new kinds of activities, as the Chicago Council and the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute did by beefing up their intellectual production activities, but this requires developing new institutional muscles. Organizations that do this need to consciously dedicate staff and financial resources to developing these new capacities.

In some cases, organizations would do well to accept their limitations and concentrate on what they do best. The Center for Global Development (CGD) does an admirable job of producing innovative ideas for policy that can help reduce child mortality and poverty in the developing world, but it consciously hands off the advocacy work to other organizations once it has developed the ideas and built a degree of initial support among key stakeholders. The Wilson Center, which is not only a think tank but also a presidential memorial to Woodrow Wilson, steadfastly avoids controversial issues that could put its status as a federal trust in jeopardy. The Chicago Council, which is a member-driven organization, likes to make sure it has a base of members who will provide support for an initiative before it starts.

In doing an assessment on institutional strengths and weaknesses, it is also worth asking specifically about whether there are institutional opportunities or threats that may emerge in the future. Leadership changes, shifts in funding availability, and other organizations entering or exiting the field can affect the organization's ability to meet its goals effectively. These types of changes can sometimes be positive opportunities, such as the availability of new funding streams or the addition of new talent that enhances institutional capacity, but they can also be potential threats, such as economic downturns and leadership changes that set progress back.

Excerpted from WHAT SHOULD THINK TANKS DO? by ANDREW SELEE. Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
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Table of Contents


Preface....................     vii     

Introduction: Ideas That Matter....................     1     

1 What Do You Want to Achieve?....................     17     

2 What Do You Do That Makes a Unique Contributiont?....................     30     

3 Who Are Your Key Audiences and How Do You Reach Them?....................     48     

4 What Resources Do You Need and How Can You Develop Them?.................     65     

5 How Do You Evaluate Impact and Learn from Your Experience?...............     83     

Notes....................     97     

Interviews....................     111     

Selected Readings....................     115     

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