As a big portion of intellectual entrepreneurship takes place in the non-profit sector, think tanks and other nongovernmental organizations face challenges similar to those of bureaucracies in measuring outcomes and defining success. Long-term profits obtained within a just rule of law is a wonderful measurement of success but not applicable to government agencies and non-profits.
State-owned companies and institutions in socialist countries used to focus on output measurements, e.g., tons of steel, pairs of shoes, or the number of students attending a university. Think tanks can fall into the same trap by focusing on the number of books distributed, reports published, conferences held, and programs managed, without making an effort to measure outcomes and results.
Governments and for-profit corporations also have units that work like think tanks. Some of the outcomes can surpass all imagination. Think of those in government and the academy who decided to connect computers to communicate, or those in internal corporate think tanks, such as the one assembled by Xerox during the ’70s, and how their thinking contributed to today’s world. My focus, however, as in other columns, will be on non-governmental, non-profit organizations and the challenge of measuring their outcomes.
Think Tanks and NGOs produce different products and services, I usually mention four: research, education, advocacy, and “doing.” I use “doing” as the category of products and services that come from “Do Tanks.” This is more common in non-ideological non-profits: providing small-loans, installing water purification systems, and other similar endeavors. But several programs of think tanks, such as defending victims of unjust government regulations, or helping edit/draft a law or major document, also qualifies as doing. Measuring outcomes is easier in this area.
A new category of think tank products, which in this age of communication and information is becoming more important, is: networking. Helping connect donors and experts with the ultimate beneficiaries is a major focus of some organizations, including theAtlas Network.
With such diversity, it is natural that organizations have different ways of measuring outcomes. They include measurements focusing on:
· Media appearances in major news outlets, TV, radio or newspapers. Think Tanks should be explicit about how they weigh each outlet. In the United States, for example, being published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal, carries more weight than being published in other papers.
· Estimated advertising value of media appearances. Think Tanks that have products or services that compete, or are offered through the private for-profit sector, have additional tools to measure their output. Estimated advertising value of media appearances is a good example. Publishing an article on the web or a blog controlled by the NGO, if it is not carried by other media outlets, tends to have much less value, and is much more difficult to measure than publishing an op-ed in a leading newspaper, or having several minutes in commercial TV channels to promote a special cause.
It is time to try to reach other ambitious goals at think tanks. Cato Institute has an outstandingCenter for Constitutional Studies. One of its outcomes has been to help redirect the debate on limits of governmental action. Cato’s president, John Allison, has been explicit about aiming even higher, taking the center to a point “when the professors at the Harvard Law School find it necessary to respond to the arguments of Cato scholars and when the Supreme Court Justices feel consistently obligated to consider the Cato perspective in reaching their judicial decisions.”
Achieving freer societies is not the task of think tanks alone. Media companies, universities, political parties and leadership, churches, and other actors also play relevant roles in the battle for ideas and their implementation. But as recent books such as“Masters of the Universe” and “Think Tanks in America” have shown, think tanks are a formidable force. An improved focus on outcomes rather than output will make them even more effective.
ALEJANDRO CHAFUEN ― FORBES
*Gonzalo Schwarz and Harry Kaldsted, of the Atlas Network, also conducted research for this piece.