by Enrique Mendizabal, Founder and Director at On Think Tanks (OTT)

I was asked by the International Development Research Centre to facilitate an event that would bring together researchers and practitioners from the Global South to reflect on challenges related to scaling the impact of innovation and research. The event was due to take place in Mexico in March 2020... you know what happened next.

We redesigned the scalingXchange as a series of online sessions that led to the drafting a call to action for funders, co-authored by researchers and practitioners from the Global South.

The Southern innovators and researchers call for funders to adopt and support new ways of working. Ways that encourage the careful consideration of both technical and ethical merits of any scaling effort, a nuanced understanding of the optimal scale (rather than just bigger scale), long-term investments in partnerships, and commitment to ongoing and dynamic learning.

Of course, as the Founder and Director of On Think Tanks I am hard-wired to think about the implications of any new idea for think tanks.

The following considerations reflect on what new ways of working might be needed for think tanks to not only achieve impact with their research, but to support the scaling of that impact for the public good.

A new starting point

That puts the people whose lives and livelihoods they wish to improve as the explicit driver of their work.

At OTT we have consistently argued that if thinktankers want to have an impact, they must stop thinking like researchers and start thinking like their audiences.

The same is true for scaling efforts. If we start from the perspective of the people whose lives we wish to improve, we may find ourselves achieving a better balance between research and policy work, and between think tanks and other types of actors and interventions that are needed to bring about change.

New staff profiles

With more diverse experiences and socio-economic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds to support engagement with other types of organisations, population groups and audiences that need to collaborate to successfully scale the impact of research – such as social movements, communities, grassroot organisations, the private sector, unions and interest groups, or the media.

New skills and competencies

To employ different frameworks, tools and functions that are necessary to scale impact. For example, communications and campaigning, community building and networking, capacity development and mentoring, negotiation and brokering, and so on.

New organisational structures

That support interventions to integrate scaling impact thinking into projects. This could involve setting up more multi-function teams, setting up a scaling impact team to support projects across the organisation, or expanding central communications and engagement teams to incorporate a scaling impact function.

New, more flexible and equitable partnerships

These partnerships should reflect the diversity of stakeholders involved in efforts to scale the impact of research on the lives and livelihoods of the communities they care about.

New funding models

That address the long-term and cooperative nature of scaling efforts. For example, phased funding, funding shared among partners or accessible through coalitions or networks.

New leadership and governance arrangements

These must be able to keep track of longer-term budget cycles, partnership commitments and objectives, notwithstanding changes in staff, funders or the context.

New organisational cultures

That incentivises collaboration and, above all, learning to live with uncertainty. For example, incentivising the organisation, teams and individuals to use diverse sources of evidence to promote change (rather than just their own). Or incentivising the use of monitoring and evaluation frameworks that recognise and embrace setbacks (that are inevitable in any scaling effort).

New functions within think tanks

That support scaling impact. The scope of work for such functions may include:

● fostering greater collaboration between stakeholders

● providing space for dynamic evaluation and learning about scaling efforts  

● contributing to building a new or strengthening an existing field of knowledge to sustain a scaling effort in the future

● making recommendations to address policy barriers or enablers to scaling impact

● creating spaces to ensure the voices (and evidence) of all parties are heard and incorporated into the justification for scaling and assessment of optimal scale

● exploring future social, economic, political and environmental trends and how they may affect scaling efforts.

Introducing new ways of working is never easy (see our recent series on rethinking organisational development).  But the eight actions that make up the ‘call to action on scaling the impact of innovation and research’ offer a flexible framework within which funders – and practitioners – can better plan for and deliver impact at optimal scale.

At OTT we wholeheartedly subscribe to the principles and recommendations of the Call to Action; and we believe think tanks and their funders should too.

Read next