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What Is a Think Tank, How Do They Work, and Are They A Nonprofit?

Lauren Pope
Lauren Pope  |  July 12, 2019

The world has always been led by great thinkers.

Starting back as early as the days of Plato and Hypatia of Alexandria and even into the modern age with philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir: great thinkers have always been on the cutting edge.

All of these people dreamed of ways the world could be better and challenged the social norms of the day. And in many ways, they laid the groundwork of what would soon become the modern-day think tank.

What is a think tank?

If your first thought when you hear the word think tank is a room full of quiet scholars, all pensively sitting around in thought, you’re actually not too far off. As the name might suggest, the primary purpose of think tanks is education and research.

Think tanks are not one-size fits all: there are many different types of think tanks. Think of a specific problem or crisis facing the world. There’s probably a think tank working on finding a solution to that problem right now.

According to the University of Pennsylvania’s 2018 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, think tanks fall into one of the following seven categories.

Category Definition
Autonomous and Independent Operates independently from any one interest group or donor influence. They are self-governing and do not receive government aid
Quasi-Independent Separate from government affiliation but controlled by a specific interest group, donor, or agency that manages funding
Government Affiliated A formal affiliate of the government
Quasi-Governmental Funded 100% by government grants, but is not part of the formal government structure
University Affiliated A policy research center affiliated with a specific university
Political Party Affiliated A policy research center affiliated with a specific political party or ideology
Corporate (For-Profit)

Operates in conjunction with a specific  corporation or on a for-profit basis.

No matter the category they fall into, the purpose of all think tanks remains the same: to bridge the gap between the problems and issues facing our world and the policies and legislation that can fix them.

How do think tanks work?

The best ideas come about when you’re working with people from different backgrounds who aren’t afraid to challenge each other’s ideas: think tanks are no different.

Think tanks are comprised of experts in their field. Lawyers, doctors, ethicists, political scientists, and professors are all some of the most common occupations you’ll find of those working for think tanks.

Just how many think tanks are there? A lot. We’ve compiled all the data from that University of Philadelphia study in a handy chart below. At the last count in December 2018, there were 8,248 think tanks worldwide.

what is a think tank?
 

Members of a think tank spend their time researching problems they see facing the world and innovating new solutions to fix them. Think tanks do not create policy, but rather, bring new ideas and solutions to the table to enable change. They publish reports and research in order to help better inform policy decisions.

The number of think tanks has been on the rise since the turn of the century. There are a couple of reasons for that:

  • Advancements in information and technology
  • Governments no longer hold a monopoly on information
  • Lost confidence in government structures and elected officials
  • Need for accurate, timely information becoming more important than ever

The think tanks that see the most success are the ones who use a proactive approach to problem-solving. They don’t wait until problems are looking them right in the face. They seek out new problems and prepare preemptive solutions before they are needed. That way, when policymakers need to take care of an issue, the solution and research are already there and ready.

Are think tanks classified as nonprofits?

You might be asking yourself, if think tanks are about promoting social good, does that make them nonprofits? It depends.

To qualify as a nonprofit, an organization must meet the following three criteria.

  1. The organization must be private and separate from the government
  2. The organization must be an established, self-governing body
  3. The organization must not distribute profit to anything else other than the advancement of the organization.

Advancing social change and advocating for the greater good does not automatically grant nonprofit status to an organization. If a think tank wants to reap the benefits of nonprofit status, they must prove they qualify the same way any nonprofit organization would. By and large, most think tanks are nonprofits and are classified as either 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) organizations.

Related: Still confused about what qualifies as a nonprofit organization? You can learn more with our resource that outlines what a nonprofit is and how it differs from a charity.

What’s the difference between a think tank and an advocacy group?

Anyone who is well-versed in nonprofits might see a striking similarity between nonprofits and advocacy groups. While the two may seem similar, there are actually a few key differences between the two.

What is the difference between think tanks and advocacy groups?

For the most part, advocacy groups serve corporate interests for a specific industry through lobbying.

Think tanks, on the other hand, usually self-identify as non-partisan organizations and have a primary focus on public giving and pursuing policies that promote the greater good, not just specific industries.

In summary, an advocacy group is designed to lobby for an industry and influence policy change within the government. An example would be the American Library Association, who lobby on behalf of librarians and their industry. Another key difference is that think tanks are governed by volunteer boards, not paid board members.

Think you know everything there is about think tanks?

Think again! You know the basics about what think tanks are, but do you know which think tanks are the most influential around the world? Download our free resource below and learn more about the think tanks leading the pack today.

FREE RESOURCE: Global Think Tank Ranking Download Now →
Lauren Pope
Author

Lauren Pope

Lauren is a Senior Content Specialist at G2 with five years of content marketing experience. You can find her work featured on CNBC, Yahoo Finance, and on the G2 Learning Hub. In her free time, Lauren enjoys listening to podcasts, watching true crime shows, and spending time in the Chicago karaoke scene. (she/her/hers)