So What?

Are Think Tanks Effective?

February 17, 2017  • Aspen Planning and Evaluation Program

The biweekly “So What?” guide highlights advice, events, and tips – mostly from the advocacy and evaluation worlds, lovingly selected (and lightly snarked) by the Aspen Planning and Evaluation Program. We’re a consulting practice at the Aspen Institute that partners with foundations, nonprofit organizations, and individual funders to help them strengthen their efforts to bring about positive change in society.

Don’t take that bet

As part of their basic analytic tools, evaluators need to understand probabilities. But we also need to understand how we and others (including our clients) may be misled by them.  However shocked you were by the outcome of the World Series, Presidential election, or the Super Bowl, FiveThirtyEight reminds us that the probabilities involved in the election and Super Bowl were vastly different. But we still caution you against betting your children’s college savings on the next political or sports underdog, because probable events are still much more common. We just tend to pay less attention to them.

This coalition is your coalition, this coalition is my coalition

To build effective resistance, activists and advocates should embrace an inclusive approach. According to George W. Bush’s former speechwriter, coalitions should include a range of voices to break down facile categories of “us” and “them” and attempt to embrace and reclaim their opponent’s symbols. It can take a lot to keep a coalition together and serving a common purpose. Some may be inspired by the defiant act of protest itself as some states attempt to establish stringent laws to restrict it. Or perhaps activists can find common ground even after Valentine’s Day in steamy nonprofit romance stories.

What makes a think tank effective?

Think tanks seek to produce relevant and persuasive evidence to their audiences. But how do they know they are effective? It’s relatively easy to enumerate outputs.

Numbers tell only part of the story.

Here are a few from the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute.  The Brookings Institution combines data with stories of its “evidence influencing policy.” As with so much in life (and evaluation) the numbers tell only part of the story. If your think tank is associated with a particular ideological stance, should you assign more value or less to a citation by an elected official or publication that does not share your stance? And what about the effectiveness and impact of the Aspen Institute, whose core mission is convening for the purpose of nonpartisan dialogue? Oh wait. We can totally answer that.

So What?
Does Fake News Really Make a Difference?
February 3, 2017 • Aspen Planning and Evaluation Program