What’s the Difference Between a Think Tank and a Consulting Firm?


Definition of Think Tank

A think tank is a research institute or organization that conducts research and analysis on political, social and economic issues. It is usually an independent, non-partisan organisation that focuses on public policy issues.

Think tanks often look at a wide range of topics from economics to health care to international affairs and the environment. Their research and analysis can be used to inform public policy decisions, help create models for solving problems, and provide new perspectives on a wide range of issues.

What a Think Tank is

A think tank is an organization or group dedicated to in-depth research into specific policy areas and issues. Think tanks are driven by the mission of producing analysis for decision makers, and typically strive to define solutions for public policy problems. The purpose of a think tank is typically not to advocate a specific viewpoint or partisan outcome—although that may be among their goals.

Think tanks are usually non-profit entities, nonprofit institutions usually founded by individuals that target educational pursuits as part of their mission. Think tanks may also be governmentally or privately funded entities operating other forms of legal entities such as charitable trusts, governmental agencies, universities or companies.

Think tanks often pursue their research through analyzing data, conducting surveys, interviews with experts and stakeholders, and using other methods like computer modeling or field experiments in order to generate new insights into complicated problems. These insights then form the basis for policy recommendations that are intended to support sound decision making by governments and other organizations.

Most think tank outputs take the form of reports, scholarly articles, books and white papers; sometimes they might organize conferences, seminars or workshops; as well as engaging widely in public discussion through podcasts, social media platforms like Twitter and more recently TikTok plus press releases about new research findings which attract the attention of key audiences ranging from policymakers to journalists.

What a Think Tank does

A think tank is a type of organization that specializes in research and analysis aimed at formulating public policies. This research may concern a wide variety of issues such as economic development, social policy, foreign affairs, education, and health care. Generally, these organizations often have networks of academics and policymakers along with access to reliable sources of data and fact-checking services that contribute towards the credibility of their findings.

Think tanks often offer advice to governments or assist them in resolving complex problems while they sometimes provide financial assistance or conduct advocacy campaigns; however their main focus is more on providing expert analysis using facts gathered from evidence-based research in order to support decision-making.

The strategies employed by think tanks vary depending on the mission of the organization. Think tanks can be seen as consulting firms for governments and corporations when soliciting advice on specific topics as well as trusted advisors that can provide an impartial viewpoint which allows for broader investigations to take place given their direct access to experts from various fields with no vested interest in a particular outcome unlike government officials with loyalties to political parties or corporation representatives working for profit motives.

Think tanks also serve an important role in public discourse by weighing in on proposed legislation or responding to current events. In this regard they serve as sources of information for the media and citizens seeking better understanding regarding issues related to their communities or countries at large.

Definition of Consulting Firm

A consulting firm is an independently owned and operated business that provides a range of services, such as advice and guidance, to clients in their specific industry. Consulting firms typically specialize in a particular field, such as business, finance, technology, or marketing.

Consulting firms typically work with clients to create strategies, solve problems, and create innovative solutions to their challenges. Consulting firms are generally hired to help businesses of all sizes make informed decisions, design and execute plans, and develop and launch products and services.

What a Consulting Firm is

A consulting firm is a company that provides expert advice to businesses and individuals. Consulting firms specialize in a wide variety of industries, including finance, human resources, marketing, technology, and healthcare. The goal of these firms is to help clients increase their profits by optimizing business procedures and utilizing their expertise in an effective manner.

Generally speaking, a consulting firm assists both its existing clients and potential customers in finding solutions to business problems. This could include finding new ways to manage investments, streamlining services and operations or improving business strategy. Consulting firms may also advise related services such as training development or technical support for customers who require additional assistance with new technology or software packages.

Consulting firms are typically engaged by their clients for a certain period of time to complete certain projects or tasks before their commission ends. During the course of the contractual period, consultants may make recommendations based on current market trends and offers insight on how new strategies or technologies can benefit an organization’s bottom line.

Since consultants are not employed by the companies they are serving, they may provide objective advice from an alternate perspective which can be useful in times of crisis or personal decision making. Additionally, consulting firms often provide post-engagement support so that their client can be assured that any changes implemented continue to function smoothly after their contract expires.

What a Consulting Firm does

Consulting firms are professional organizations that provide expertise, guidance, and advice to clients in order to help them improve their business operations. Consulting firms tend to specialize in particular industries and business disciplines, such as finance, human resources, accounting, marketing, and information technology.

Consulting firms offer a range of services that are tailored for different needs within an organization. These include:

  • Organizational development
  • Management consulting services (strategy and change management)
  • Risk management consulting services (internal / external audit)
  • Financial consulting services (budgeting and forecasting)
  • Legal consulting services (contracts and regulations)
  • Operational consulting services (improving operational processes)
  • Other specialized technical advice.

Consultants at a firm typically have expertise in one or more areas such as strategy planning or financial analysis. They often come from various educational disciplines such as business administration, engineering or public policy. Consulting forms take on a variety of engagements that span short-term projects to long-term strategic initiatives depending on the client’s objectives. Consultants work with their clients to identify solutions that best meet the specific situation at hand while meeting the client’s desired results in the most cost effective way possible.

Differences Between Think Tanks and Consulting Firms

When it comes to the world of thinking and consulting, there are two distinct groups of professionals that are often confused with each other – think tanks and consulting firms. Both can provide strategic advice on a variety of topics but the differences between the two are important to understand in order to choose the right service for your needs. Let’s take a look at the main differences between think tanks and consulting firms:


Think tanks and consulting firms may offer similar services, such as research, strategy development, and evaluation, but the structure and operations of these organizations reflect distinct differences.

Think tanks are often non-profit organizations with an additional layer of oversight from members or advisors from a range of backgrounds. Coupled with their mission to advance knowledge and explore issues for the public good, this oversight is designed to ensure think tanks remain independent as well as trustworthy sources of information.

Meanwhile, consulting firms tend to be for-profit businesses operated on behalf of clients such that their most important priority is to meet a contractual solution in accordance with the client’s needs. This means that consulting projects tend to emphasize short timeframes and specific objectives that tie into particular performance measures which define success or failure in terms of measurable impacts.

The structural differences between think tanks and consulting firms may help explain why each type of organization tends to specialize in certain types of services – think tanks focus on policy research while consulting firms provide more practical solutions rooted in data analysis – and why they develop unique relationships with their stakeholders such as:

  • Governments
  • Foundations
  • Corporate partners
  • Non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
  • Universities
  • Private citizens


Think tanks and consulting firms are two organizations with different focuses and outcomes. Think tanks typically engage in research to develop new policies or frameworks that can be implemented by public and private institutions, while consulting firms focus on helping businesses solve specific problems.

Think tanks often work to develop longer-term, policy-focused solutions to issues or problems in a specific field such as economics, education, or national security. They conduct research into existing cases and theories related to the area in question, analyze existing data to form conclusions, and provide potential solutions for the issue. The results of the think tank’s research are usually published in reports which can be submitted to decision makers by policymakers, academics and institutions.

On the other hand, consulting firms specialize in helping businesses achieve their specific goals or objectives through strategic advice on topics such as marketing, human resources and technology utilization. Consulting firms typically have a more short-term aim than think tanks; rather than aiming for long-term change at an institutional level, consulting firms offer targeted advice on areas such as business growth strategies or quality improvements that may then be implemented right away.


The goals of think tanks and consulting firms differ significantly. Think tanks are typically non-profit, independent organizations whose mission is to conduct research and provide a platform for open dialogue about controversial topics. They may analyze data, develop and test new ideas, formulate potential solutions to global issues, or help generate public support for particular initiatives. Their main aim is to bring evidence-based policy solutions to the public domain by providing unbiased reports that can inform decisions made by representatives of the public and private sectors.

Consulting firms, on the other hand, are primarily focused on helping clients reach their business and organizational objectives by leveraging their expertise in a specific sector or market. Consulting firms provide value-added services such as creating market entry strategies, developing business models, analyzing financials, and overseeing operational activities such as organizational restructuring or implementing transformational projects. A consultant’s approach actively emphasizes practical solutions that can be implemented quickly rather than offering conceptual solutions grounded in research or data analysis.


Output is the most obvious difference between think tanks and consulting firms. Think tanks produce a wide variety of outputs such as reports, articles, white papers, publications and other research-based materials. These products are intended to educate policy-makers and provide guidance on public policy issues. The output from think tanks focuses on providing knowledge and insights about individual topics of interest.

In contrast, consulting firms focus on producing direct actionable recommendations for their clients. Consulting firms typically provide services to both the private and public sectors through a variety of services including strategic planning, project development, facilitation, program design and evaluation. Consulting firm outputs often come in the form of brief presentations with specific recommendations for how their client should move forward with a particular issue or project.

When to Use a Think Tank or a Consulting Firm

When you’re trying to make business decisions, it can be difficult to decide between using a think tank or a consulting firm. Even though they both offer advice, a think tank works to provide advice on public policy, while a consulting firm provides tailored advice to businesses. There are advantages and disadvantages to both services, so in this section we’ll cover when it’s most effective to use one or the other:

  • Think Tanks – provide advice on public policy.
  • Consulting Firms – provide tailored advice to businesses.

Types of Projects

Think tanks and consulting firms can provide support with different types of projects. Think tanks focus on providing research and analysis of policy, while consulting firms specialize in helping organizations solve operational issues.

Think tanks are great for formulating conceptual solutions to highly complex, technical issues. They often provide a more big-picture approach that can inform a strategic direction. Consulting firms, on the other hand, focus on helping organizations put those concepts into action by developing concrete plans and turning ideas into operations that drive performance. They specialize in project management, system integration and organizational change management services to ensure successful solution implementation.

Think tanks work with governments, civil society organizations and the private sector to deliver research that supports public policy decisions. Consulting firms typically advise companies about how to improve internal practices or overhaul their operations for better performance. Both Think Tanks and consulting firms allow organizations to leverage external expertise to create innovative solutions that can deliver lasting benefits.

Cost Considerations

Cost can be a major consideration when deciding whether to hire a think tank or consulting firm. Think tanks usually charge an annual fee, while consulting firms tend to charge either an hourly rate or a flat fee per project. Additionally, think tanks often provide members with access to conferences and other events that may reduce the overall cost of doing business with them. Consulting firms offer more personalized services, so their costs tend to reflect the expertise provided by their team members and the complexity of the project for which they are hired.

When budgeting for services from either type of organization, it is important to include time for research and preparation in addition to fees charged for consultation and implementation. Additionally, some organizations may require a minimum expected investment prior to agreeing to begin work on any given project. Before making any decisions about which organization to use, it is important for potential clients to assess all the options before signing any contracts.


When considering when to use a think tank or a consulting firm, it is important to consider the timeframe of the project. A think tank, or research organization, provides expertise and specialized knowledge to organizations who need an extended period of time for research or analysis. Think tanks are usually engaged in long-term projects that focus on strategic planning and thought leadership.

Consulting firms, however, are typically used when an organization needs specific advice or assistance within a short time frame. Consulting firms specialize in areas such as marketing and strategy development and may even provide services such as financial management or business operations management.

Therefore, if you are in need of assistance with a short-term project, then consulting firms provide the right level of expertise for your specific requirements. Consulting firms also provide ongoing support by offering guidance and discussing potential solutions during meetings while working toward a common goal. If you have an extensive project that requires more significant research and analysis than a shorter term project, then utilizing the expertise of a think tank might be the best solution for you.


Think tanks and consulting firms are both incredibly important parts of the modern business landscape. Think tanks provide unique insights and an invaluable perspective from which to gain a deeper understanding of complex business problems, while consulting firms help organizations make informed decisions and drive change.

Ultimately, the choice between the two comes down to the need of the organization and the specific expertise that is required. By understanding the differences between these two types of organizations, businesses can make better decisions and become more successful:

  • Think tanks provide unique insights and an invaluable perspective from which to gain a deeper understanding of complex business problems.
  • Consulting firms help organizations make informed decisions and drive change.

Summary of Key Differences

At a high level, the main difference between a think tank and a consulting firm is that think tanks are research organizations dedicated to the production and dissemination of new knowledge, while consulting firms focus primarily on the practical application of existing knowledge. Think tanks are often nonpartisan or focused on providing policy solutions to public problems, while consulting firms tend to be for-profit enterprises with an emphasis on commercial services.

Think tanks conduct independent research projects which form an important part of the public dialogue around various topics in industry and academia. They commission studies from academics and facilitate multi-stakeholder debates. By contrast, consulting firms typically do not engage in sponsored research but rather take on projects from clients seeking recommendations about best practices for a particular issue or endeavor. Consulting teams draw upon existing resources like journal articles, market reports, and other literature to provide expert consultation services pertaining to client needs.

Both think tanks and consulting firms hire experts in their respective fields; however these experts can have different backgrounds depending on how the organization operates. Think tank staff members may come from academic institutions while consultants usually come from both academic institutions as well as relevant industries or businesses.

Overall, a think tank is an organization dedicated to producing original policy solutions through research-oriented activities; meanwhile a consulting firm focuses on developing expert advice based largely upon already existing materials for organizational clients in need of sector-specific services.