The On Think Tanks Exchange is a new initiative that aims to encourage and support exchanges between think tanks for the purpose of developing new relationships, facilitating collaboration in research projects, institutional development, and policy influencing efforts.

The Exchange is being launched with a project co-supported by the Think Tank Initiative, the Think Tank Fund, and On Think Tanks. [Note added 6/01/14: After its launch it was joined by the Knowledge Sector Initiative in Indonesia.]

The Exchange project involves a series of face to face events and webinars over a period of two years. At the end of the first year, the participants will begin a maximum of four collaborative research projects.

Throughout the 2 years, participants will engage in an action learning project to reflect on the barriers on collaboration for think tanks. At each event (face-to-face and webinars) they will discuss one or two policy or organisational development issues.

The website will provide an up-to-date and ongoing account of the process including: all materials presented and used at the events (face to face and webinars), descriptions and updates on the collaborative projects, lessons emerging from the action learning project, and lessons emerging from the project itself, based on frequent after action reviews.

Our theory of how effective collaboration happens

We considered the following “theory” of how meaningful exchanges and collaboration can develop, as the basis for The Exchange:

  • Balance: Successful and meaningful exchanges and collaboration require that all parties collaborate as equals – as true partners.

Before meaningful exchanges and collaboration can take place the following conditions need to be satisfied:

  • Familiarity: through individuals and then of the organisations
  • Understanding: of the context in which the organisations and the individuals work
  • Knowledge: of each other’s objectives and motivations and of each other’s competencies and skills
  • Trust: of each other’s objectives and motivations and of each other’s competencies and skills

The following interventions or activities can help satisfy these conditions:

  • Practice: Successful exchanges and collaboration require practice and reflection and this can be achieved by:
    • Collaborative pilots: in which participants work with each other in a safe environment
    • Facilitated learning: in which participants have the opportunity and are supported to learn from mistakes and successes in a safe environment
    • Personal and group development: in which the participants are able to observe and reflect on their own progress, as well as that of the group, “pilot after pilot” – or in this case exchange event after exchange event.

The team

The Exchange is a collaboration and at its centre are the participants. Supporting them is a team of individuals who have been working with and for think tanks for a long time:

  • Enrique Mendizabal: Founder of On Think Tanks (www.onthinktanks.org) and an independent researcher and advisor on and to think tanks and their supporters.
  • Stephen Yeo: Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR). CEPR (www.cepr.org) is the leading European research network in economics, and brings together over 850 European economists who produce applied theory and empirical work on a wide range of international economic policy issues.
  • Eva Cardoso: an experienced project manager with solid experience managing various international development research projects; taking care of contractual management, budget monitoring, setting up/improving structures and processes, and arranging the content and logistics of international events and trainings.

In addition, The Exchange will seek out the support of other individuals and initiatives. Their names will be added to this page as they join:

Finally, a Steering Committee has been set up  to review the inception report, approve the choice of think tanks involved, monitor the implementation of the project, and provide feedback mainly through the after action reviews planned for each exchange event. Members of the Steering Committee will participate in the exchanges when appropriate.

  • During the inception phase (i.e. until the participating think tanks have been selected) the members include: Peter Taylor (TTI),  Goran Buldioski (TTF) and a representative of AusAID’s Indonesian KSI [Note added 6/01/14: the KSI respresentative has not yet joined the Steering Committee].They will review and approve the choice of think tanks and the inception report.
  • Once the think tanks have been chosen and the exchanges are underway: The Steering Committee will be extended to include the Executive Directors of the participating think tanks. They will review each event’s After Action Reviews and provide feedback based on them –as well as contributing their own impressions on the occasions when they attend an event as its host. [Note added on 27/7/15: this was never fully implemented. We followed up all the meetings with discussions with the funders and the participants.]

While The Exchange is a collaboration between (so far) three independent initiatives, it is being implemented by Mendizabal Ltd as part of the On Think Tanks family of initiatives (see: On Think Tanks Lab). This is a small one-person (Enrique Mendizabal) consultancy firm that will manage the contracts with the Think Tank Fund and the Think Tank Initiative. The team and others involved in the project will be sub-contracted by Mendizabal Ltd. Mendizabal Ltd does not charge overheads for managing these contracts.

Communication strategy

A simple yet effective communication strategy has been developed. To ensure that the participants remain engaged in the process and that others not directly involved are able to learn from it if they wish to, the process and all the outputs it generates will be actively communicated via:

  • A simple portal.
  • Immediate publishing of Policy and Organisational Development resources, presentations, etc. to ensure easy access to these resources and to encourage others to share their own with The Exchange;
  • Frequent blogging and tweeting before, during and after the events using existing popular sites; and
  • The exchange events will provide an opportunity to develop short videos, podcasts, and other multimedia materials to be proactively shared among the participants as well as more widely.
  • To extend the participation to other staff in each think tank, the host’s communications teams will play a role in the events. This will provide another opportunity for the think tanks to learn from each other – possibly, by means of a healthy competition.
  • The communications strategy will be complemented by a simple intranet for The Exchange (using Google Drive) and an internal group (using either Google groups or LinkedIn). The webinars will be managed using a user friendly tool (possibly Google Hangouts).

Monitoring and learning

The Exchange will also deploy a simple yet very effective monitoring, evaluation and learning process:

  • Active and transparent communications: By accurately and quickly communicating every aspect of the process we will ensure that all parties are kept informed of plans, activities and lessons without delay. This will give them time to react provide feedback and advice. The participants will have access to all the relevant information. The best way to be accountable is to be transparent.
  • Opportunities for feedback: By organising the process around exchange events and webinars it will be possible to compare progress and maximise the opportunities for learning. Each event will provide clear indicators of whether the Hub is improving its delivery and if the participants are fulfilling their commitments.
  • Back to Office Reports and After Action Reviews: Besides ongoing blogging, tweeting, and emailing, the Hub will rely on two simple, and well known, tools to monitor progress. Each participant will write up Back to Office Reports based on their own experience of the exchanges. These will provide insights into their own assessment of the process as well as recommendations for future activities and exchanges. Using these Back to Office Reports as key inputs, an After Action Review will be organised immediately after each exchange and at the end of the entire process. These will be shared with the participants and the Steering Committee –as well as with the public at large.
  • A mid-term and a final report: A mid-term (mid-2014) and a final (mid-2015) report, using all these ‘intermediate’ monitoring outputs, will be prepared. This will include recommendations for future efforts.


Mid term during First year:

End of First year report:

Mid term during second year:

Impact so far

Impacts are hard to assess at this stage, but some outcomes can be observed already:

  • It is quite significant that the participants were, very shortly after the first Exchange, able to identify issues to work on and choose with whom they want to collaborate. We did not expect this to happen until a second face-to-face meeting in late June.
  • It is also significant that The Exchange has brought on board a new funder: the Knowledge Sector Initiative (KSI) in Indonesia. This extends its reach beyond the two main regions represented by the other participants and includes three of the largest think tank funders in the developing world.
  • We have observed clear commitment from the participants and their organisations. Even if at the meeting in Lima some participants expressed a certain degree of uncertainty about the purpose and design of The Exchange, this has quickly turned into a very clear commitment to participate. Renata Delaqua, for instance, was quick to point that even if her employer were not interested she would like to continue her involvement in the programme. Similarly, IRE and Article 33 in Indonesia replaced their researchers and their directors offered the organisers their personal assurance that they were keen to remain involved with The Exchange.
  • Real and close friendships have developed. The best indicator of this is that the participants have ‘friended’ each other on Facebook and even set up WhatsApp groups to keep in touch. This goes beyond what would be expected from purely professional and project-based relationships. A new Facebook group has been set up to exchange pictures from the exchanges and this is now being used to encourage collaborations, too.
  • In Jakarta, Leandro Echt reported that his participation in the programme has helped him to develop new inter-personal and collaboration skills. This was echoed by participants at the meeting in Quito.
  • The Exchange has made it possible for the participants to learn about countries and organisations and meet people they would not have without the project –at least not in this way. Feedback from the participants suggests that this is an aspect of the project that they value highly.
  • All the projects involve case studies on the organisations themselves so this reinforces the possibility of learning about each other’s organisations. It also makes it possible to share this information with those who were not able to participate. The cases will be published over the course of the next few months.
  • An unexpected development of the project is that the participants have focused on organisational development issues and have, in some cases, taken steps to influence their own organisations.
  • The Exchange proved to be a good mechanism to facilitate links and possible collaboration between other organisations. In Peru, we were able to use the meeting to organise an event on Ukraine in Peru bringing to the table researchers from Europe and Peru. In Indonesia, The Exchange made it possible for Indonesian think tanks to meet the representative of a Latin American think tank network. In this second case, although KSI played an important role supporting the event, the connection and the organisation of the event was done without the need for funders: ILAIPP covered Orazio’s participation costs, The Exchange provided the platform and connections with SMERU, and SMERU hosted the event.
  • The Exchange has also made it possible to connect funders to think tanks. For instance, TTI has been able to engage with think tanks from Europe and Indonesia directly. Similarly, KSI has been able to find more about think tanks in Latin America. While this may not necessarily lead to ‘cross-programme’ or ‘cross-regional’ funding, it certainly creates new learning opportunities.