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Supporting the next generation of think tank leaders

February 20, 2019

Erika Malich

Program management officer, Think Tank Initiative

Young leaders from think tanks around the world attended the Think Tank Initiative Exchange in Bangkok last fall. These young researchers, communicators, and managers were among more than 250 members of the think tank community participating in the intense three days of discussion. The topics ranged from sharing lessons of how think tanks make a difference, to ways of improving research quality and engagements with policymakers, to exploring future opportunities for collaboration.

Over the past 10 years, the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) has helped to strengthen the capacity of 43 think tanks in South Asia, Latin America, and Africa to help inform policymaking processes with high quality research. This final TTI Exchange was an incredible opportunity to meet representatives from these think tanks and the broader think tank community from all over the world.

After the conference, the young leaders came together to debrief and reflect on their own conference objectives, what they were able to achieve, and what had surprised them. Despite any fatigue from the events or any lingering jet lag, the energy in the room was electric.

Everyone was eager to share stories about networking and what they had learned. For some it was interesting to hear that think tanks around the world struggle in similar ways, for example with financial sustainability or communicating academic research. The experience triggered new ideas for future research and collaboration and a community was formed to discuss impact evaluations.

Reflecting on her experience as a young leader at the TTI Exchange, Paula Pino from the Grupo de Análisis para el Desarrollo in Peru said that participating in the event was “a valuable way to improve our knowledge and skills, and, therefore, our role in our institutions”.

Young leaders at the Think Tank Initiative Exchange

The excitement of the young leaders and their enthusiasm for this opportunity to engage was palpable. Yet without the decision to specifically target and support young think tank leaders, the majority of these participants would not have been part of the conference.

Many high level events support and attract people we might consider to be the “usual suspects” — senior staff and experts in the field, trusted partners who have received funding for years, or other highly visible and respected individuals.

From the initial planning stage of this final Exchange, TTI aimed to make the event as inclusive as possible. For this reason, TTI focused on gender and inclusion throughout the planning of the event, in part though the creation of a checklist on inclusive and accessible event planning. All participants also received the conference’s guiding principles on gender and inclusion ahead of the conference.

TTI created spots exclusively for young and emerging leaders to ensure their participation.  While offering this opportunity was important, it was also clear to TTI that people learn best from capacity-building programs with longer-term support and guidance. This is why TTI decided to partner with On Think Tanks and co-develop the On Think Tanks–Think Tank Initiative Fellowship Programme.

A fellowship program for young thinktankers

The first stage of this fellowship program was attending the TTI Exchange and participating in additional workshops and mentorship in Bangkok. The group met for a full day before the conference and after each conference day to debrief and begin intentionally reflecting on personal and professional goals.

The second stage of the program paired 10 of the young leaders with a senior think tank mentor for monthly one-to-one meetings and a week-long training in Geneva at the Winterschool for Thinktankers.

After spending time with these fellows, it is easy for me to understand the value of engaging young leaders. It has become clear to me that organizations need to be more intentional about including younger generations at learning events (and beyond) because it enriches conversations with diverse perspectives and experiences and offers such an amazing growth and learning opportunity.

Most participants would agree with Varsha Pillai, a fellow from the Public Affairs Centre in India, when she said that it “has been an enlightening experience and will add tremendous value to my growth as a thinktanker”.

Learn more about gender planning for the TTI Exchange.

Watch video of the young leaders at the TTI Exchange.