Holding aside the content-producing research fellows, the governance of think tanks consists of (1) a president (director) and his administrative staff, (2) a board of directors (trustees, overseers), and (3) large donors.
Presidents typically come from the political and diplomatic worlds (e.g., outgoing President Strobe Talbott of the Brookings Institution). They exemplify Washington’s revolving door of professional politicians/diplomats going back and forth between government jobs and think tanks or lobbying firms. Most think tank presidents are part of the broadly defined political establishment.
Boards of directors also come from political establishments, either of the left or right depending on the orientation of a think tank.
Large donors to think tanks often contribute to political campaigns or causes (environment, poverty, education, etc.). Many regard think tanks as extensions of political parties.
Those who govern have been around the political block several times, or as President George W. Bush put it, to more than one rodeo. They are in their element providing administrative and financial support to their elderly fellow counterparts.
Many think tanks have become Senior Citizens Centers of old politicians, diplomats, civil servants, and research fellows—a Closed Circle. This is not a recipe for adaptation to paradigm changes in politics.
I have been fortunate to live on the campus of Stanford University for over 40 years. Stanford has been and remains the intellectual center of Silicon Valley, a magnet for students who create billion-dollar firms that transform our lives in important ways, (e.g., communications, medicine, and so forth). No important hi-tech firm has been started by anyone over 50, unless that firm was the second, third, or fourth in the career of a serial entrepreneur who started at a much younger age. Those over 35 in Silicon Valley have graduated into the ranks of corporate managers or angel investors and venture capitalists.
Where are the savvy 30-40 year-olds when it comes to running think tanks, creating new agendas, and promoting new ideas? There aren’t any. Could it happen? Not if the think tank industry has its way. But then, Brexit and Trump happened. I’m from Missouri, the “show-me state.” We’ll see.