Winter School for Think Tankers 

Yan Luong, Director of the Think Tank Hub and foraus Geneva, welcomes participants  at the Impact Hub

The Think Tank Hub has become a pioneer in hosting and co-organizing with On Think Tanks the first physical training for think tankers. The Winter School is a unique opportunity for young and proactive individuals who are engaged to develop their knowledge and understanding of think tanks, and prepare themselves to become future policy entrepreneurs.

Breaking away from the formalities of theory-based courses, we developed a project-based learning strategy; a practically-oriented learning format with real life examples where participants could easily interact with organisations and take home practical tools. Lecturers built upon their own experience, presenting challenges faced and out-of-the-box solutions to overcome them. Themes covered included the development of a research agenda, tools for communication, the importance of M&E and Impact, financial management and funding, as well as the role of governance.

#WISCH17 Moments

Will Paxton, Director, Kivu International

Will Paxton from KIVU International started off the week with a lecture on developing a research agenda. He invited the participants to debate how and to what extent policy makers actually listen to researchers. He also highlighted the importance for a think tank to have a clear focus, concrete strategies for policy changes, and an awareness about which “windows of opportunity” are open to it.

Lectures at the United Nations (UN) Library on developing a catchy research agenda linked to SDGs. 

Emilia Pasquier, Director of foraus, explained the unique path her Think Tank took as a grassroots movement. Because Switzerland doesn’t have a strong tradition of Think Tanks, she explained, it was very challenging to create one. She continued by underlining how important it is for new think tankers to have innovative ideas, and be pro-active with propositions.

Verena Parzer, Head of Communications of the Swiss Think Tank Avenir Suisse, presented various enrichening examples towards the communications tools - Who is our target audience? How do we want the audence to be addressed? At what rate do we publish research papers? Which topics do we want to cover, and which ones should we avoid? Verena insisted on the importance of being coherent when transmitting information. 

Francesco Pisano delivered a brief history of the UN and its library, and encouraged think tanks to engage more with the UN in general. In this vein, the next speaker, Jennifer Freedman, discussed how think tanks could actually engage with the UN and used her organisation, UNRISD – an autonomous research institute within the UN – as an example. Her advice: « stay relevant » and « one of your priorities should be translating academic papers into short messages and finding the right channels to get messages to the targeted audience ».

Tuesday was dedicated to Communications. Philippe Stoll presented the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), explained how communications can be used for humanitarian aid, and spoke about the role of new technologies. Later in the day, Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga briefly presented the Geneva Press Club, and then focused on how think tankers can connect with the press. She stressed the necessity of short, coherent and appealing communication, but warned of falling into oversimplification. The last speaker, Andrea von Siebenthal from GICHD, animated a vibrant workshop on public speaking. She gave the participants various tips on how to best deliver a speech, such as “be authentic, be fresh”, “keep it simple but powerful”.

Verena Parzer, Head of Communications and Production, Avenir Suisse

 On Thursday, the theme developed was Fundraising and the Financial Management of think tanks. Sonja Stojanovic, Director of Belgrade Centre for Security Policy gave practical examples from her own think tank (BCSP) on developing a sustainable funding strategy, identifying and evaluating possible funding sources, managing the relationship with funders and highlighted the importance of being transparent. She affirmed: "Core budget costs must include an audit.; it sends the message that you are doing things right & become eligible for greater funds."  

On Wednesday, the morning presentations focused on Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E). Stephen Yeo presented how M&E works for think tanks, which is quite different from companies. Indeed, he argued, “achievement is more important for a think tank than for companies.” As a think tank, he continued, you have to show results to donors and society ; be transparent and able to demonstrate that achievements have been made. Further, he explained to the participants how to assess the value of a think tank, how to measure the performance internally and externally, and how to deal with donors regarding M&E demands.

Following Mr Yeo’s intervention, a brown bag lunch on systems change and innovation for sustainable development, with Kali Taylor, from International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), was organised. The last speaker of the day, Enrique Mendizabal from On Think Tanks, spoke about communications as an orchestra, or more precisely, on how to use different communications channels effectively. For the rest of the day, the participants had some reflection time to work on their Learning Journals: notebooks handed out on the first day of the Winter School for participants to assess their lessons learned throughout the week and reflect on what they will need to further develop for their own purposes.

Emilia Pasquier, Director, foraus

Sonja Stojanovic Gajic, Director, BSCP

Marc André Pradervand Head of  Direct Marketing & Donor Care Unit of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) : What do funders look for in think tanks? How do we attract funding? He reminded the participants that “fundraising is not sponsoring”: there shouldn’t be direct rewards for the donors. He mentioned that preparatory work inside the organisation is very important for fundraising. Furthermore, he explained that the rational as well as the emotional parts are important during the process.

Dr. Marc-André Pradervand, Head of Direct Marketing, MSF

In the afternoon, the think tankers discovered the Maison de la Paix, where, Professor Thomas Biersteker, from the Global Governance Programme of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID)  spoke about the reluctancy of funds dedicated to research. He also mentioned the use of expertise in international organisations and the challenges of integrating external research into their activities. He affirmed: "Lack of incentives is one of the main challenges facing external research in regards to policy research at the UN".

At the end of the day, the participants visited the environmental house, which gathers under a common roof a range of UN and non-governmental organisations active in the field of environment and sustainable development in the Geneva area, where each speaker presented his or her organisation: UNITAR, Geneva Environment Network, Green Growth Knowledge platform. 

On Friday the topic was Governance and Management. Enrique Mendizabal, as founder of On Think Tanks, gave some practical advice about the size and role of boards, selecting the right people for leadership positions and on fostering creativity within the team to spur innovative outcomes.

Thomas Biersteker, Director of Policy Research, Graduate Institute Geneva

During the final day, the participants spoke about the lessons learned during the week and gave some feedback to the organisers. To optimise the discussion, a group work session was organised to reflect on lessons learned. Enrique Mendizabal concluded the Winter School with some last advice on how to set up a Think Tank, such as “Get started before you seek big funding. Publish, organise events, network, be coherent. Help them find you”.

Overall, we have had, so far, good feedbacks from the participants. On Think Tanks and the Think Tank Hub intend to continue working together to develop general follow-up support for all the participants as well as more specific engagement for those with on-going projects to develop or lead a think tank.

If you want to know more about the Winter School 2017, you can find more detailed information here.


  • Will Paxton, Director of Kivu International;

  • Francesco Pisano, Director of UN Library;

  • Jenifer Freedman, Chief of Communications and Outreach, Results and Evaluation at UNRISD;

  • Philippe Stoll, Deputy Head of Public Communication at ICRC;

  • Verena Parzer, Head of Communications and Production at Avenir Suisse;

  • Emilia Pasquier, Director of foraus;

  • Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga, Correspondent Journalist at the UN and Vice President of the Geneva Press Club;

  • Andrea von Siebenthal, Communication Manager at the Geneva Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD);

  • Stephen Yeo, Former Chief Executive Officer at the Centre for Economic Policy Research;

  • Kali Taylor, from IISD and Founder of Students Energy;

  • Enrique Mendizabal, Founder and Director of On Think Tanks;

  • Sonja Stojanovic Gajic, Director of the BSCP;

  • Dr. Marc-André Pradervand, Head of Direct Marketing at MSF;

  • Katinka Koke, Associate Programme Officer at UNITAR;

  • Benjamin Tyler Smith, Knowledge Management Officer at Green Growth Knowledge Platform;

  • Johan Rochel, Board Member of foraus;

  • Alexandre Munafò from Interpeace;

  • Thomas Guerber, Director of Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF); and

  • Laura Merrill, from IISD.

  • Thomas Biersteker, Director of Policy Research, Graduate Institute Geneva

#WISCH17 Participants

Makhele Letlhogonolo from South Africa is a Masters student on Public Health with a background on Pharmacy. He asked "How can I communicate to gain social support in order to develop an NGO on education supporting health?"

Halyna Pastukh who works for the Data Journalism Agency TEXTY in Ukraine reacts to the question of how to make news "sexy"

João Pedro Pompeu Melhado from Brazil shares an example of the strategy used by Endeavour - the non-governemental organization he works for - to strengthen their donor-donee relations.

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The Swiss Think Tank on foreign policy

foraus (Swiss Forum on Foreign Policy) generates independent, high quality recommendations for foreign policy decision makers and the public, thereby bridging the gap between academia and politics. Its non-partisan approach aims to promote an open dialogue and informed decision-making on all aspects of Swiss foreign policy. foraus is a grassroots organization.


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