A Pirate Think Tank – a concept

This document is the work of Smári McCarthy and is a first draft. It is a working document and is subject to change or withdrawal.

Founding a policy think thank oriented around Pirate politics is a good idea. There is a lack of good analytical research constructed around information politics. Entire topic areas are virtually unexplored, including but not limited to economic policy, industrial policy, healthcare, welfare and agriculture. These topic areas need to be developed with regards to information politics, in addition to furthering research in fields where Pirate parties have shown strength, such as international trade, intellectual monopoly rights, and civil liberties.

Structure and officiates

The structure of such an organization is paramount. It should operate independently under a fixed mandate, which does not specifically hang the organization onto the Pirate movement, but rather focuses on information politics and policies related to this. However, the origins should not be hidden. A template for the appropriate structure may exist in the form of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Germany, or the Györgiy … in Hungary.

These operate independently of their “parent” organizations (the German Green Party in the case of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung), with their own board of directors. They have staff, offices, and provide grants to various goals. In the case of Heinrich Böll Stiftung, their capacity is substantial due to the tradition in Germany that each political party with parliamentary representation gets special funding from the government to solicit independent research or finance research foundations. This will not be the case in Iceland.

I would amend the aforementioned models slightly, by suggesting the creation of a “chair”, rotating annually, for distinguished international scholars in the field. It would be good to limit tenancy of the chair to one or two terms. If possible, establishing a stipend for the holder of this chair (even a small one) would be good.

Given that, the structure would suggest:

* An executive board, charged with guaranteeing that the organization has funding to achieve its goals, that it adheres to legal requirements, that it is well managed, audited, and effective. It is also responsible for hiring and firing the executive director.

* An executive director, charged with the day-to-day running of the company, authorizing expenses, hiring and firing of other staff, and conducting overall management of projects (albeit with the authority to delegate).

* An advisory board, charged with providing thought leadership in the topics pertinent to the organization, advising on policy positions, and guaranteeing continuity of thought.

* A fellowship programme, which provides funding to scholars and academics to conduct research on specific topics. The understanding should be that most of the actual research is conducted by fellows and visiting scholars, but managed and augmented by the permanent staff members. The staff may also conduct research as obligations permit. This is roughly equivalent to how many other think tanks operate. It is possible to have permanent staff work on external projects that help to raise funds for the organisation.

 How Much Does It Cost?

Running an organization like this costs a lot of money. Having been the executive director of IMMI for several years, and now as a board member, I see that the activity range of an organization like this is strictly determined by its funding sources. There may however be ways to make the operations cheaper, and to operate more sustainably. First off, there are unavoidable costs of doing business. These include the cost of bookkeeping, annual returns, and annual audits. The cost of registration is small and can be amortized easily. I’d work on the assumption that these costs are at least in the range of €3.500 annually, although they are somewhat elastic to the scope of operations. Next, there is a need for at least one full time staff member as executive director. Including overhead costs and working off reasonable Icelandic rates, I’d estimate that this does not cost less than €100.000 annually, although I have seen organizations struggle on with half that. The aforementioned chair should ideally not operate on a lower budget than €6.000 per year in direct stipends. A fellowship programme costs at absolute minimum €30.000 per year.

 How Do We Pay For It?

Let’s pick a number. Let’s pick €150.000. That’s the bar of viability. Above that, we can absolutely be making a substantial impact, but below that we’re likely to spend a substantial amount of time and effort on fund-raising rather than actually achieving the organization’s goals. The cost effectiveness of an organization like this is very important. Overhead rates of between 10-12% are common. Under 10% is preferable. Raising €150.000 is not easy. Doing so annually is very difficult. An organization like this is unlikely to get substantial outside funding from traditional grant organizations (such as Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, etc), due to its political ties, its goals, and in some cases simply due to it not falling within the political ideologies of the people who have old money.

New money options may carry to some degree, but only if such funders were to be identified. Holders of new money are in many cases somewhat ideologically aligned with Pirates, but also tend to scale the mountains of madness by following the ideologies of Rand, von Hayek, Friedman (the elder), etc.

Identification is insufficient. These people must either volunteer to, or be convinced to part with such money. For that, a much clearer organizational goal is required, along with substantial guarantees of success.

Alternatively, there is the route of crowd-funding. Crowd-funding is often a one-off activity, but subscription-based crowd-funding is a time honored tradition that the Internet is finally catching up on — organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, Save the Children, and Amnesty International and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament operated on crowd-funding for decades before the term was “invented” by arrogant snobs in Silicon Valley.

However, crowd-funding based organizations tend to spend a lot of their time fund-raising, and comparatively little time getting anything done. This essentially raises the overhead bar, which is bad. On the other hand, crowd funded organizations tend to also spend more effort on awareness-raising, which is good for dissemination of research results.

A tiered donations model could work as middle ground. Working off the basis of a mix of income streams, roughly following a Pareto distribution, one could see bracketed income groups being a source of funding proportional to their bracket. By this logic, one would need 50 people to donate €3000 per year, 100 people to donate €1.500 per year, 500 people to donate €300 per year, 5000 people to donate €30 per year, or any mixture of this, to meet the minimum requirement. Getting 5000 people to part with €30 is almost as difficult as getting 50 people to part with €3000.

I would suggest that we aim for no less than €75000 pledged funding over a three year period, or equivalent effective guarantees, before starting this process.