How Think Tanks Measure Success

Published May 11, 2018

What does winning look like? What is victory?

For most think tanks and advocacy groups, success seems to be all about acknowledgment: a quote in the mainstream media, an op-ed in a top publication, appearing on Fox News or CNN. Lots of books in print, Facebook “likes,” and maybe a White House retweet are some examples of what think tank leaders define as success.

Although these achievements have value, should policy organizations and their donors really measure success by social media numbers and the approval of left-leaning media elites? Shouldn’t we aspire to affect policy?

The leader of an influential Washington, D.C. think tank recently identified what he believes to be the three most important measures of think tank success: (1) the number of times the organization’s experts testify before Congress, (2) the number of op-eds published, and (3) the growth and size of an organization’s budget. Think tanks often use these three measures to judge their efforts, but there are several important reasons why free-market, pro-liberty leaders should think differently.

For starters, congressional testimony is not nearly as important as many believe. As a former member of Congress, I will let you in on a little secret: A congressional hearing is little more than political theatre. Experts’ congressional testimony hardly changes anything. Typically, the experts are brought in largely to justify the decisions legislators already have in mind.

Similarly, think tank leaders rarely can prove anybody actually ever reads their organizations’ op-eds, much less that they actually changed anything. Instead, they assume an op-ed published in The New York Times or The Washington Post is proof of success. Allowing the leading mouthpieces of the leftist media to determine whether a free-market think tank is impactful ensures we’ll never really win.

After only a few months at Heartland’s helm, it is evident to me that far too many think tanks measure their importance and impact by how much they spend, how many people work for them, and how many people attend their numerous parties.

Wanting More

We at The Heartland Institute have a great deal of respect for our colleagues in the free-market movement. Nonetheless, we embrace a very different measure of “victory.”

Although Heartland experts have already testified 23 times in 12 states in 2018 and we consider that time well-spent, we want more than just to testify. Similarly, despite having generated more than 5,587 media mentions in the past 15 months, we want more than media attention. Heartland had nearly 800,000 contacts with state and federal legislators in 2017, but we want more than just to be their main source of information, which we are. Heartland’s podcasts were downloaded 2.6 million times during the past 12 months and our social media impressions exceeded 8.1 million, but we want more than to be a leader in producing original, high-quality content and reaching millions of people through social media channels, impressive as those achievements surely are.

These measures, though important, are inputs, not outcomes. They show activity, not necessarily success.

At Heartland, we want to get things done! Real success in the policy world is not determined by how much money we spend, how many people work for us, or how often the Left prints our 700-word essays in their 150,000-word daily newspapers. It means real policy change.

How Heartland Defines ‘Victory’

Recently, one of our staffers received a phone call from the office of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to inform us that the governor was about to sign landmark welfare reform bills implementing policies and legislation Heartland has been promoting, publicizing, emailing, and testifying in favor of for decades in multiple states. We had been on the ground leading the charge for months in Wisconsin.

But wait: there’s more. While our staffer was on the phone with the governor’s office, a U.S. senator’s office called to begin strategizing with us to get another piece of key legislation—a “Right to Try” bill—across the finish line. This is the bill President Donald Trump mentioned, at our urging, in his State of the Union Address earlier this year. It’s also part of the effort that led to legislation passing in the U.S. House of Representatives with our help in March. This Right to Try bill matches a project Heartland helped to initiate more than a decade ago: Free To Choose Medicine, a plan to speed the availability of potentially lifesaving, long-overdue cures and therapies that have been held up by the morass of the Food and Drug Administration.

It is not often that any think tank, advocacy group, or lobbyist is this successful in a month—much less in just one day.

Working for Real Change

That was an extraordinary day, but it represents what we do year-round. We helped bills for direct primary care (DPC), another long-term, landmark Heartland policy, in which marketplace freedom makes health care more affordable and increases access, get signed into law in Florida, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey legislature recently passed a bill to re-impose the Obamacare individual mandate, even though research shows it hurts lower-income families the most, and Democrats in at least eight other states and the District of Columbia are working to impose taxes on the uninsured. We helped defeat an Obamacare-inspired Medicaid expansion bill in Idaho, and we are working in other states to protect the public from these harmful policies. That’s what success is to us: the spread of freedom and prosperity.

Standing in the Breach

A close friend of Heartland called me late on a Friday afternoon and suggested Heartland join the “Climate Trial of the Century”: a lawsuit brought by Oakland and San Francisco against five oil and gas companies for allegedly covering up so-called evidence that fossil fuels have been destroying the world. The oil companies were conceding important points, and nobody seemed willing to step up. Here’s what the donor didn’t know: We were already on the case, helping allies submit an amicus brief presenting the best science available and writing a Policy Brief providing answers to questions posted by the judge.

We did what Heartland does: stand up at the right time, in the right place, and with the right resources to defend the truth. We don’t curry favor with the leftist media or Beltway insiders. We simply stand on the side of the angels, the side of truth, and the side of liberty.

From California to North Dakota and Wisconsin to Missouri, from Congress to every state capitol, from the courtroom to the committee room, The Heartland Institute is there, often alone, fighting for our liberties. We work for real change with the resources your generosity provides.

That’s what winning looks like. That’s victory.