← Back to Previous Chapter

What think tankers actually do

“Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.” ― Thomas A. Edison

The term “think tank” may bring to mind a life of quiet contemplation. Groups of experts sitting in book-lined rooms, pondering or debating the great matters of state.

If that’s what you’re after, I’m afraid the reality will disappoint you. Life in a think tank can be hectic. In addition to the traditional research and report writing you’d expect, there’s fundraising; relentless networking with subject matter experts, practitioners and government officials; designing and hosting events; speaking at conferences; blogging; TV and radio appearances; and much more besides. The good news is that the diversity of activities makes life as a policy wonk much more interesting. In this chapter we dive further into each in turn.


It may seem mercenary to start with talk of cold, hard cash. But the reality is that policy wonks don’t get to do much thinking or writing if their research doesn’t get funded. The majority of UK think tanks are set up as registered educational charities. Most have to fundraise to cover all their annual expenses, including for staff, office space, IT, printing, mailing, events, travel, you name it. A handful of lucky ones like Nesta have permanent endowments that provide investment income to cover at least some of their costs. Many will have a professional development (i.e. fundraising) manager or team. In others, each researcher is responsible for bringing in cash for their own projects.

So who gives money to think tanks? There are four major sources of funding:

> Corporates. Some – mostly large – businesses are interested in funding think tank research. Their motivations for doing so are many and varied, but often it’s because they’re interested in raising the profile of specific issues affecting their industry, broadening their networks across government, and getting a deeper understanding of emerging policy trends. Big businesses tend to have a government or public affairs manager who will act as the main point of contact for think tanks. To be explicit, these people are lobbyists: their job is to ensure that government policies are favourable to their company and / or industry, and that their business is well briefed on the likely consequences of new or proposed legislation.

> Individuals. As with most charities, individual donors are a potential source of funding. For think tanks, these tend to be high net worth individuals who can write a cheque for several thousand pounds or more. Why would they fund think tanks? Typically because they care about specific policy issues and see a think tank report as a credible way to make their case more powerfully and publicly than they could do alone. A further attraction for individual donors is that their donations qualify for Gift Aid, meaning that for every £1 they donate, the think tank (provided it’s a registered charity) can claim an additional 25p back from HMRC. Higher rate taxpayers can also personally claim back tax over the basic rate.

> Trusts and Foundations. Trusts and foundations, such as Trust for London, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the City of London Corporation and the Liebreich Foundation, can be sources of substantial funding. But their money comes with caveats. Almost all have very specific criteria on what type of research they will support – whether based on geography, target group, subject matter, or all three. It can be challenging for policy wonks to reconcile those criteria with the subjects they want to write about, but it can be done. (View list of trusts and foundations.)

> Political Parties. Prior to the recent surge in new members joining parties such as Labour (during and since the first and second elections of Jeremy Corbyn as leader) and the SNP (since the Scottish Independence referendum), membership of many long-established political parties looked to be in terminal decline. As parties sought to cut costs, in-house policy staff were amongst the first to go. Political parties may therefore offer modest sums for think tanks to research a particular issue on their behalf. An example would be how some political parties hire the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) to assess the financial implications of their manifestos and specific policy priorities, normally to show economic credibility. That said, it’s generally hard for think tanks that are charities to take political party commissions as this can conflict with their charitable objectives.

Whatever the source of funding, there has to be a clear barrier between those who fund a report, and those who write and edit its contents. (The volunteer group, Transparify, produces annual reports that rank think tanks on the transparency of their funding.) An organisation that merely delivers – or is perceived to deliver – its sponsors’ messages will rightly not last long. Any decent think tank will therefore have a clear editorial policy that guarantees independence from its funders.

Ethically, that’s imperative. Yet it would be disingenuous to say it doesn’t make fundraising a challenge. It means policy wonks not only have to find a company, trust or individual who supports what they want to say, but those sponsors also have to be willing to fund it without getting any major say in its contents. Of course, donors may be inclined to support a think tank whose ideological stance and past reports align with their own thinking. But the main pitch to them normally has to be about the virtues of being associated with thought leadership – the big, new ideas that define an industry or policy area. Successful thought leaders attract a following and can gain the ability to proactively shape the policy agenda.

Fortunately, reports aren’t the only objects of fundraising. Many think tanks also raise money through sponsored events or annual memberships. Events are less problematic than funding reports. A sponsor can be invited to speak at an event and say whatever they wish, unfiltered by the think tank, without there being any implication that the think tank agrees with the views being expressed. Annual subscriptions, meanwhile, can be an attractive way for sponsors to benefit from a whole think tank’s expertise without committing to a specific report. Some organisations offer annual recurring membership to enable donors to stay informed about their research and have access to private events – a potentially attractive offer for companies and individuals with broad interests.

Box 3 offers some tried and tested tips for effective think tank fundraising. Yet ultimately only two things get close to guaranteeing substantial funds. The first is to build strong relationships with a pipeline of potential donors. Just as businesses talk of the “marketing funnel” with potential customers being converted into paying customers, charities aim to convert potential sponsors into signed up donors. That requires a significant network of contacts and plenty of time spent building relationships. The second is to consistently write interesting and influential material. If you’re the most recognised name in your field, donors are more likely to come and seek you out.

Box 3: Tips for effective think tank fundraising

> Remember that your first meeting with a potential donor will almost never be the one where you walk away with a cheque. It’s about building strong, long-term relationships. The time lapse from first meeting an individual or organisation to moving them along the giving pipeline to become a paying donor can be 1-2 years.> Listen more than you speak. Especially in an initial meeting with a potential sponsor, focus on making it about them and their interests. That way, you can more easily match your projects to their priorities. If you start by talking about your own ideas, you risk pitching the wrong projects, leaving them cold and failing to spot other funding opportunities.

> When fundraising from businesses, build relationships with public affairs firms (e.g. Hanover, Edelman, Marlin PR, etc.) that design lobbying activities on behalf of their corporate clients. They tend to have a strong awareness of the interests of a wide range of organisations in your field and can help connect you with potential sponsors.

> Pitch your research idea as something that could serve or complement the company’s marketing strategy. Companies’ public affairs budgets tend to be modest. Their marketing budgets, however, are much more substantial. Tap into the latter and your chances of accessing significant funds are considerably enhanced.

> Go out of your way to look after your previous and existing donors – they’re the best source of future funding. It’s said in business that it’s three times easier to sell to an existing customer than it is to secure a new one. Much the same applies for fundraising: it’s easier to get a previous sponsor to fund your research than it is to get a new one across the line.

> Make sure when you speak to sponsors it isn’t always to ask for money. Make them feel engaged and important. To that end, aim to find sponsors who can do more than just write a cheque. Actively seek out those with expertise in your area. They will enjoy being asked for their expert opinion and hearing your thoughts on the latest political developments.

> Apply the 80/20 rule. You could spend months trying to court every conceivable donor. Don’t. Do your research and focus on those with the greatest propensity to give, based on their relevance to your field and available budget, and relentlessly work on moving them closer to giving.

> Give yourself options by having several report and event ideas at any one time. In order to be able to match donor interests with your programme, have a shopping list of options to offer them. This may mean rejigging the order in which you publish your work, but it will increase your chances of securing financial support.

> Offer genuinely costed quotes. Instead of plucking figures out of the air, say £20,000, businesses expect to see an accurately costed quote reflecting the actual time and effort required to produce it.


More than any other single factor, a think tanker’s ability to shape the policy agenda is based on the strength of their relationships with decision makers. It’s hard to change the world or design interesting and workable policy ideas from behind a desk. Networking is therefore a huge part of the role. In particular, think tankers spend time building relationships with officials and policymakers in government. As Chapter 4 highlights, to be effective, policy wonks must seek to solve problems the government actually has. Talking to insiders is the best way to discover which issues are top of the pile for review. Furthermore, civil servants are more likely to listen to and pay attention to the recommendations of people they know personally.

Policy wonks also need to meet with subject matter experts to find out about the latest trends, opportunities and challenges in their domain. In my own area of technology policy, I spent a huge amount of time visiting tech companies, start-ups, academics and other experts so I had the requisite knowledge to be useful to government. To build and sustain those networks, many think tankers attend some of the hundreds of policy events that take place around the country – and especially in London. Such events are niche, as you might expect. As a result, it’s possible to encounter the same group of people time and again, creating opportunities to exchange business cards, find out what others are working on, and arrange follow up meetings. Those same experts may also be potential future sponsors, creating an extra incentive to take networking seriously.

Designing, hosting and speaking at events

Building on the theme of networking, events are a core part of think tank life. They’re also a mechanism to have significant impact. Think tankers can have influence not just by personally speaking at events, but also through the topics they choose for the events they organise, the guests they select, the questions they ask each speaker to address, and the audience they invite.

There are five broad categories of think tank event:

Conferences are full or half day events featuring a number of speeches and panel sessions, with an audience of around 50 to several hundred people. Conferences are incredibly labour intensive to design, organise and promote, and can be expensive to host if an external venue has to be hired. Yet they can be well worth the effort if they succeed in bringing together a substantial number of relevant people in a particular field to hear from high profile speakers, and cover many different aspects of a policy area.

In addition to arranging their own conferences, many think tanks organise so-called “fringe” events at the major political party conferences, which take place in cities around the UK in September and October each year. Those sessions help raise the public profile of the think tank at the UK political world’s most high-profile annual gatherings.

Panel debates typically involve four to six speakers, with an additional person chairing. After the chair has set out the theme of the event and introduced the panel, each speaker is normally invited to give some introductory remarks. The chair then moderates a debate between the panellists before opening up to questions from the audience. Audience members typically include policy specialists, civil servants, parliamentary researchers, corporate lobbyists and public affairs professionals. Members of the public with an interest in the topic can usually also attend. (A condition of think tanks’ charitable status is that the vast majority of their events must be open to the public.)

Roundtables tend to be closed, invitation-only events where a group of 10-20 experts is brought together to debate a topic. This is a good format if a subject is not suitable for public discussion – for example it’s very technical and niche – or where the aim is to explore untested ideas. This tends to be the sole format where civil servants are able to take part. That’s because most roundtable discussions use the “Chatham House rule” – shorthand for saying that what’s said during the event remains confidential. Officials are thereby able to speak frankly about their challenges off the record.

Workshops are the most hands-on of all the event types. Those attending are expected to actively participate, consider problems and collectively brainstorm and share views, solutions and ideas. Workshops can be a powerful tool at the early stages of research to help policy wonks come up with and assess new ideas. Later in the process, they can be used to help identify which of several policy options is most viable. To work well, workshops need to be run and managed by experienced facilitators who know how to get the best out of a diverse group of people.

Online events. A number of think tanks are following a format executed successfully by the likes of the Guardian Online, in which experts are invited to comment on questions in an online forum. These sessions have two distinct advantages over their physical counterparts. The speakers can be sourced from anywhere in the world, enabling debate between figures who may never otherwise have the opportunity to meet in person. And the event can be followed by an unlimited number of people. That said, the difference between physical and virtual events is becoming blurred. Many think tanks now invest time in bringing the content of their events to a wider audience than just those in the room. Live tweeting using a pre-advertised hashtag is very common practice. A smaller number live-stream their events using tools like Periscope.

The specific role of a think tanker depends on whether they are organising an event or speaking at one hosted by another organisation. Entire books have been written about the art of successful public speaking, chairing conferences and managing events; I’ll not try to delve into and do justice to those many techniques in this short volume. The key message is this: given that events rival reports for having policy impact, they are well worth the investment of time and energy to do well.

Blogging and social media

There’s a brutal truth few think tankers admit publicly: hardly anyone reads their reports. Sure, plenty of people are sent the reports, but most will be skimmed at best. Recipients may open a PDF document shared online. But – unless the message is truly ground breaking or timely – few will scroll beyond the executive summary. Reports are simply too long a format for the vast majority of people to have the time or inclination to read them.

To get a message across, write a blog.

Virtually all think tanks now regard blogging as a serious and worthwhile pursuit, and recognise that good writing takes time. There’s a real but useful discipline in having to convey a point in 500-1,000 words; less being more. Many of the most effective think tankers commit to blogging regularly to enhance their profile and communicate their most important messages. Blogs can be a good way for them to publicise ideas that would otherwise get lost in the media storm around a report. They can also enable think tanks to comment on breaking news stories without the months-long timeline of writing a traditional publication.

Blogging’s partner in crime is social media.

In a world of policy ideas, social media is the forum where they’re shared and debated. LinkedIn and Medium are popular, but Twitter is the platform of choice. Think tankers tend to use it in two distinct ways. The first is to listen. Mainstream news sites are simply too broad to provide the deep coverage of issues needed to be an expert in a given area. Policy wonks therefore spend time carefully curating the people they follow so they can stay informed about what’s going on in their niche. Third party sites like Hootsuite can be useful for viewing social media activity related to keywords. The One Million Tweet Map or Twitter Trends Map can also help think tankers see what people are tweeting about in particular areas of the country.

The second use of social media is for think tankers to share their own views. Sometimes that will be linking to reports or blogs they’ve written; at other times expressing their views – or responding to those of others – on their area of expertise.

Use of social media is a powerful way for policy wonks to build their personal brand, and is regarded as a legitimate use of daily work time. Twitter allows think tankers to put their work directly to the elites in their research area in a way that can be easily shared and amplified through retweeting and commenting. Tools like Buffer or TwitterCounter help them post tweets at the best time of day and analyse what types have most impact. Fan Page Karma provides similar insights on Facebook.

TV, radio and press

Think tanks exist to communicate ideas. Getting journalistic coverage in print, digital, TV or radio is a powerful conduit for gaining exposure. Yet there’s often a tension. The media loves short, soundbite headlines and black-and-white messages. But many policy wonks discover that if they dive into any issue in sufficient depth, it’s hard to provide a pithy summary that reflects all its nuances and subtleties. There’s a real talent in being able to traverse the two. Media training is therefore a common area of professional development activity for policy wonks. Many will be taught how to give effective answers that work for the very different needs of TV, radio and print journalism – another group of skills that warrant a book to themselves.

Getting the timing and messaging right about a new report is vital for attracting serious media attention. Think tanks have to compete with all the other newsworthy stories that arise on a given day. Nearly all of them therefore have a Communications director or team to help their researchers pick out the one message of their report that’s likely to garner the most public interest. Though those headlines may not reflect the primary message of the report, they provide a hook to drive interest in and traffic to the publication.

Getting good media coverage can boost think tankers’ influence with government. Civil servants and spads provide their ministers with regular clippings and summaries of news articles relevant to their department. Being top of that pile can open doors for the author to be invited to participate in more detailed discussions at the top levels of government.

Research and writing

Last but not least, think tankers spend time researching and writing reports. Reports tend to be significant pieces of work, taking several months to produce. Think tankers approach the research element in many different ways, but tend to start with desk research – i.e. finding written and data sources in print or online. In the vast majority of policy areas there’s a large body of existing literature to consider. Some will be theoretical pieces by academics. Some will be reports from other think tanks or books and blogs by experts. There are also past government papers to consider, mostly listed on https://www.gov.uk. This kind of research will be familiar to anyone who’s written a university dissertation.

Interviews are a second and vital part of good research. When it comes to understanding a problem, few things beat getting out and asking people what they really think; particularly those who are at the coalface. Often, those working with an issue on a daily basis are better at articulating the problems than suggesting solutions, but the latter is precisely where the role of the think tank comes in. If the think tank has a good reputation, it tends to be fairly easy to speak to even the most senior officials. People love to be asked for their expertise. To ensure the interviews deliver as much value as possible, preparation is key. Good think tankers do plenty of research before an interview so they don’t waste time asking for views or information that are already in the public domain. They ask open-ended questions to encourage interviewees to speak at length and reveal new perspectives.

Finally, for some types of report, polling can play an important role. Even before BuzzFeed came onto the scene with its formulaic “10 things you didn’t know about X” headlines, the media has long loved numbers and statistics. Polling is a great way to give a report a powerful, sharable and media friendly message. As part of their research, policy wonks may therefore work with a professional polling firm such as YouGov or Ipsos MORI to design a series of questions that can be targeted to a specific section of people – most commonly through phone calls. It’s effective, but it doesn’t come cheap. Asking a single question to around 1,000 people can cost in the region of £1,000. The price rises considerably if it’s necessary to interview a more specialist group of people, such as NHS consultants or corporate bankers.


Many more activities could, no doubt, be added to this section. But the overall picture is that think tank life can be very diverse indeed. So diverse, in fact, that for most policy wonks, there’s simply not enough time in the day to excel at all these different elements. Instead, many choose to focus on the actions that play best to their strengths and enable them to have most impact with their ideas, whether that’s as a brilliant media performer, blogger, or public speaker.

Which leads us nicely onto our next question.

Where do think tankers get their ideas in the first place?

Go to Next Chapter →