Building a Think and Do Tank: 12 Lessons from CGD’s First 12 Years

January 13, 2014

This is a joint post with Todd Moss.

As CGD begins its 13th year, we are asking ourselves: can a think tank become established without becoming establishment? Buying our own headquarters also gave us an excuse to look back at what we think we have learned since the Center was created in 2001. We hope our new essay, Building a Think and Do Tank, will interest CGD’s friends and supporters (and critics!), and that it might be useful to others in the research and policy business, including groups like the Think Tank Initiative that seek to support the emergence of effective think tanks in developing countries.

In writing this little essay, we’ve tried to abide by one of our unofficial mottos: “We take our work seriously, but not ourselves.”  We probably failed: in trying to be comprehensive, our list feels a bit ponderous and self-important. Anyway it’s done and we’re sharing it with the hope of providing a bit of a window into how we operate—and why we love the House-that-Nancy-and-Ed-Built. Here’s our list:

  1. Start fresh to stay fresh
  2. Articulate an inspiring mission and aim for results
  3. Start with flexible money—but not too much
  4. Hire great people and give them plenty of freedom and responsibility
  5. Share leadership
  6. Share ideas early and often
  7. Don’t plan. Experiment!
  8. Partner with people, not organizations
  9. Resist the growth inertia
  10. Make it fun
  11. Celebrate (and try to measure) success
  12. Keep asking tough questions

The full 12-page essay is here.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.