There we were:  An American team, a British team, a Canadian team and a Norwegian team, far from home and eager to make the most of years of work. Were we skiing, ice dancing or hurtling down the luge track?  No, we were not. (Surprise!) We were just a bunch of individuals representing organizations that have pooled funds to support think tanks around the world, and we were meeting to wrap up the first phase of the project and gear up for the second.  While we didn’t come home with medals, I, at least, came home with a renewed appreciation for the value of collaboration among funders.

A little background:  The Think Tank Initiative is a ten-year program designed to support and strengthen about 50 think tanks in 22 countries in Latin America, South Asia, East Africa and West Africa. It grew out of a $50 million commitment made in 2006 by the Hewlett Foundation board, which believes strongly in the value of evidence-informed policy making. The foundation board recognized the tremendous contributions that can – under the right conditions – be made by reputable, independent organizations that generate solid analyses of policy options and are able to communicate their findings at the right time and place. The Hewlett board also recognized that all too often the only funding available to think tanks in low- and middle-income countries is for projects that donors define. Many of these organizations have few opportunities to pursue independent research that responds to national priorities.  Thus was born the idea that we might be able to enhance the quality of policy making over the long term by selecting promising think tanks to receive flexible funding – “core support” – combined with opportunities for the think tank directors to gain and apply new knowledge about management, governance, research quality assurance, communications and fundraising.

Others shared that vision.  First, the International Development Research Centre in Canada joined as a co-funder.  With regional offices and a track record of research capacity building, IDRC also took on the truly challenging job of implementing the global program. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK Department for International Development, the Government of the Netherlands and recently the Government of Norway all joined at significant funding levels.  Eventually, the Think Tank Initiative mobilized about $100 million for the first five-year phase and, after an external evaluation, close to that level for the second. It’s a tiny fraction of the funding for, say, the $50 billion Olympics, but it’s a big boost in unrestricted dollars for think tanks.

The collaboration has been fascinating to watch and to participate in – a sort of petri dish of collaboration among funders. It has not always been easy.  Three different types of organizations – bilateral agencies, foundations and a Crown corporation (please don’t ask me to define exactly what that is) – have had to line up their budgeting and reporting systems to avoid administrative madness.  And we have each had to figure out how a big bet on think tanks fits into our distinct institutional strategies, which themselves have been moving targets.  More importantly, each of the funders has had to simultaneously wear an institutional hat and make decisions that serve the initiative as a whole rather than the piece we most care about.  Meaning:  letting partnership trump ownership.

Working together is always more complicated than going it alone.  Sometimes dealing with those complications isn’t worth it.  Compromises made for the sake of partnership can compromise a project’s effectiveness.  But when we get collaboration right, working with partners who deserve points for both skill and style, we can get bigger wins than any of us could expect working alone. In this case, it means that think tanks across the developing world will have a better shot at making a real difference in their countries’ future.