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The Value of Think Tanks

Don’t underestimate the value of Think Tanks.

For those whose business keeps them occupied well outside the beltway of Washington, DC, the value of Think Tanks can appear unclear. They exist as a vehicle through which decision influencers and decision makers openly examine, discuss, dissect, and encourage various aspects of public policy. Think Tanks serve multiple sectors of government and industries, and are particularly prevalent in the foreign policy and national security domains.

How Think Tanks Operate

Most Think Tanks operate in a not-for-profit configuration, typically qualifying for special taxation status under 501(c)3 or 501(c)6. As with most non-profits, that doesn’t mean they don’t generate revenue. In fact, most raise funds to sustain substantial operations even if they don’t accrue a profit. Fundraising comes in the forms of grants, contributions from industry, and event revenues.

Academics, former officials of government, researchers, and industry officials all collaborate to apply considerable brainpower and influence on matters of broad interest. Examples can include any element of policy such as defense spending, infrastructure, or the value of particular weapons platforms. Concepts are often promoted in the public square specifically to generate further dialogue and critical review. Some, not all, Think Tanks, openly promote a political ideology.

Think Tanks have a core staff that runs the organization, along with a cadre of positions compensated with direct pay, much like a salary with benefits. Adjacent staff take the form of fellows, assistant fellows, or advisors. Some of these adjunct roles involve compensation; some don’t and are voluntary. Fellows and advisors who work with or for Think Tanks may also work as independent advisors and receive compensation for such services. There is potential for conflicts of interest along this particular line of demarcation between Think Tank work and individual interests.

The Value of Think Tanks and How They Achieve Their Mission

Think Tanks achieve their mission through a combination of programming, publishing, organizing, and influencing. Events hosted by a Think Tank might take the form of seminars, panels, dinners, or receptions. It’s common for members of industry to make financial contributions and associate with a Think Tank in an advisory capacity. It’s also common for Think Tanks to publicly promote positions supportive of donors and benefactors.

It’s the confluence of potentially conflicting objectives that warrant your closer look. When a Think Tank publishes commentary without declaring any associated entanglements, the commentary can look like independent journalism wrapped in supportive facts. It might paint an industry or company product in a favorable position. There is nothing illegal going on here. However, it’s a practice of which consumers of the Think Tank product should be aware.

Think Tanks perform a useful service. There is a need for open and public dialogue on myriad policy issues. Click To Tweet

When reading your favorite journal, it’s a good idea to make your own independent examination of the author’s independence. Do they also have a noteworthy relationship with industry and for compensation? Are they being compensated by an entity to put forth a polished opinion? Again, it’s perfectly legal, but you should understand the connection and potential for bias. Many articles include a footnote that makes the connection clear; however, if you don’t know the organization has an ideological bias, you might miss the undercurrent the article carries.

Think Tanks perform a useful service. There is a need for open and public dialogue on myriad policy issues. Apply your own critical thinking to the product of the Think Tank.

The Make Your Move podcast is a multi-season series devoted to the lessons learned of military members in their post-active duty lives. I hope you enjoy the stories of the men and women brave enough to share their transition stories so publicly. Listen to the latest episode here.

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