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Announcing the Vision Project

9th June 2021
Announcing the Vision Project
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Think-tanks play an invaluable role in the socio-economic progress of India. We will provide core funding to help them emerge as effective and resilient organisations.

India has the largest number of think-tanks in the world, outside of the US. This is the result of rapid growth in the past few years, and testament to the important role they play in advancing knowledge and discussions in democratic societies. Think-tanks create new knowledge, use those to develop policy recommendations, and make these available to other stakeholders like governments, civil society, media and businesses. They also provide safe spaces for intellectual discussions, heated debates, international cooperation, and long-term, strategic thinking. Many of them represent voices of geographies and communities that may otherwise not be represented in policy discussions.

This is especially true in Omidyar Network India’s focus areas like data privacy, property rights, governance, education and financial inclusion – some of which are nascent sectors that we still need to understand better. This is why we have actively funded think-tanks – in the past few years alone, we have provided nearly $10M to over 20 think-tanks, not including our research funding to consulting firms.

We have seen think-tank leaders in our portfolio help create a meaningful life for every Indian in their focus areas. Their single greatest contribution has been to advance India’s understanding of the complex issues we work on. This research has either directly informed policy or supported the work of civil society in these areas. Many of them have been quoted by lawyers and judges in courts. Think-tanks have served on committees that recommend policies to the government or created rankings that evaluate the effectiveness of government schemes. Collectively, they have built a body of work that we at ON India are privileged to have been able to support.

At the same time, some of the challenges they face have also become obvious to us. The primary one is funding – while a think-tank in the West typically receives 30-50% of its capital as core grants, the share is much lower in India. Governance is another important area – many think-tanks have been unable to develop strong and active boards that can both guide the organisation as well as keep management accountable. But these are not the only constraints. Indian think-tanks have been unable to take a long-term view of their work and build a strong, resilient organisation that can work towards it. They have not been able to invest in areas that are critical to shaping and determining their long-term vision: culture, governance, communications, human capital, second-line leadership and accountability.

This is because funding is often available on a project basis and hence restricts them from devoting the right attention to strengthening the organisation core. The lack of flexible capital and strong governance has prevented think-tanks from responding to their full potential. This has been exacerbated due to the Covid-19 pandemic, wherein a lot of philanthropic capital has – rightly – been used for healthcare, livelihoods, food and other basic needs. Despite these constraints, think-tanks have stepped up to play their part during the crisis.

This is exactly why we at ON India have decided to step in. We believe that the complexities and challenges in our focus area have increased – not decreased – because of the crisis, and so must our commitment to our think-tank partners. Therefore, we are launching the Vision Project to provide core funding to some of our investees to better navigate the uncertain times that lie ahead by focussing on building a stronger, more resilient organisation that can deliver on their long-term vision for themselves. They can use these funds for any organisational priorities – like governance, communications, IT, mental health, culture, diversity or anything else – but not on their programmatic research or events. We hope that with such funding, think-tanks in our portfolio will become –

  • Effective – Organisations that deliver effectively on their theory of change, and have a positive impact on society. This could include improving their ability to communicate their work, streamlining the research process, telling their story in an inspiring way, networking with like-minded organisations, engaging with decision-makers, putting better research quality controls in place, or anything else that makes their research more effective.
  • Resilient – Organisations that can withstand external and internal shocks, and are always learnings and adapting. This could include improving their board functioning and governance, articulating a clear theory of change, improving fundraising capacity and financial management, setting up a learning function, investing in staff well-being and diversity, building an enabling internal culture, strengthening IT and security, streamlining operations, or anything else that makes the organisation robust.

To come up with the project, we benefited from the experiences of our peers in Luminate, IDRC, Hewlett Foundation, Nilekani Philanthropies and others. The plans and reflections they put out are a goldmine for any non-profit seeking to embark on a transformation journey. We learnt from their experiences and then created what we feel is best suited for our think-tank partners. The Vision Project is based on six foundational principles –

  1. Entrepreneur-led: Change of this nature needs to be owned by the organisational leader and must not be externally enforced. Therefore, think-tanks under this program will write their own plans, benefitting from the advice of a strategic coach that ON India hires.
  2. Trusting: We trust the entrepreneur to know what is best for her think-tank, given its context. We need to provide her with the space to experiment, fail and grow. Therefore, The Vision Project is structured as core, restricted funding.
  3. Long-term: Change is both difficult and time-consuming. Change that requires cultural change takes even longer and may not show results for years. Therefore, we will provide funding from anywhere between one and three years under the program.
  4. Holistic: Changes in just one part of a think-tank are unlikely to be effective in the long run. To make a meaningful difference, several inter-linked parts need to change at once. Therefore, participants in The Vision Project are free to use funds as they deem fit.
  5. Incentivised: Change often requires an external catalyst. Without external incentives, a change process might sputter and even halt. Therefore, we will hire a coach to assist and encourage our think-tank leaders in their journeys. Participants will also commit to meeting progress milestones, which will unlock further tranches of funding.
  6. Nimble: Just like we hope our think-tank partners are nimble in their programmatic work, we expect their org development strategy to be nimble as well. Therefore, participants will have the freedom to, in discussion with their ON India investment lead, modify their plans as they go along.

We also recognise that neither effectiveness and resilience is entirely within the organisation’s control. For think-tanks, for example, whether they are effective depends on the overall amount of funding in the sector, as well as whether its most relevant government bodies follow a consultative policy-making process. While we wait for those macro factors to change, we feel think-tanks can concurrently improve their internal processes and outcomes.

For the inaugural cohort under this program, we have selected four current or alumni grantees:

  • Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability: Non-profit organisation enhancing transparency and accountability in governance through rigorous analysis of policies and budgets, and fostering people’s participation in public policy processes by demystifying them.
  • Centre for Internet & Society: Non-profit organisation that undertakes interdisciplinary research on the internet and digital technologies from policy and academic perspectives. CIS was established in 2008 and has offices in Delhi and Bengaluru.
  • Centre for Policy Research: One of India’s leading public policy think tanks since 1973. The Centre is a non-profit, non-partisan independent institution dedicated to conducting research that contributes to the production of high-quality scholarship, better policies, and a more robust public discourse about the structures and processes that shape life in India.
  • IT for Change: Established in 2000 in Bengaluru, IT for Change aims for a society in which digital technologies contribute to human rights, social justice and equity. It works in the areas of education, gender, governance, community informatics and internet/digital policies

Seven other think-tanks from ON India’s portfolio will also receive leadership coaching for the next two years. We will continue to share our learnings, successes and failures with the wider non-profit community.

Image credit: ICCCAD