There is no one widely accepted method of managing international agricultural research and numerous different models exist. Here we review one in particular, referred to as the ‘institute without walls’, from the perspective of the UK Department for International Development's (DFID) Renewable Natural Resource (RNR) Research Strategy (1990–2006). We begin with a brief history of the RNR Research Strategy from 1990 to 2004. We then draw on nearly 15 years experience of managing one of the programmes within the RNR Research Strategy to assess critically the impact of externally and internally imposed organizational and management changes on the performance of the DFID Plant Sciences Programme (PSP). The current RNR Research Strategy (1995–2006), with its emphasis on demand-led research, has greatly increased the relevance and effectiveness of DFID's natural resources research. A comparison between the PSP in 2004 and the early 1990s inevitably concludes that the programme has been transformed: unlike in 1991, research is now firmly demand-driven, much is based in developing countries and farmers are benefiting from the research. Over time, the outputs of the long-term strategic research have been applied in practical plant breeding and participatory crop improvement programmes. Key to the success of the PSP has been the provision of continuous, long-term funding which has allowed projects time to develop and produce outputs of real value to end users. Alongside this, the ability of the PSP to build long-term, in-country partnerships has ensured the effective adoption of its research outputs. We conclude that the successes of the PSP have largely derived from (i) identification of research that is clearly demand driven, (ii) continuous long-term funding that has allowed research to move from the strategic to adaptive phase, (iii) continuity of management, and (iv) the flexibility to develop a wide range of partnerships, both in-country and overseas, based on their ability to deliver.