The Fellowship's the thing - RSA

The Fellowship's the thing


A day with RSA Scotland gave me new insights into our ambitions for Fellowship.

I spent Saturday in Edinburgh as a guest at RSA Scotland’s AGM. The first half of the day comprised a fascinating conversation about food policy chaired by Sheila Dillon of Radio 4’s Food Programme. I spoke in the afternoon but the main business was conversation around various small projects which have been supported by the RSA Scotland venture fund (the trail blazer for the international Catalyst Fund).

Although the overall numbers weren’t as high as might have been hoped, the event exemplified best practice for national/regional organisation.  The emphasis was on the impact the Scotland RSA could have in wider society. There was great support for establishing local networks (to go with those already in existence in Edinburgh and Glasgow). Issues were raised about John Adam Street – particularly in relation to the bugbears of Fellowship profile on the website and the Fellows’ Directory - but the discussion was based on a shared commitment to make the Fellowship experience better and better. The whole event was friendly, informal and thoughtful and the three non Fellows who had been brought along as guests were clearly impressed by what they saw.     

In the closing part of my speech I explored how I saw Fellowship as integral to the new mission of the RSA, summed up in our new strap line ‘21st Century Enlightenment’. There were, I suggested, three dimensions to this:

1. Through the lectures, website, Journal, research reports and other outlets RSA Fellows deepen their insights into the foundations and development of human capability. The RSA’s focus combines a fascination with the eclectic and growing body of research into human nature and behaviour with a normative belief that the good society relies upon the cultivation of a more ambitious, responsible and rounded account of the good life. Many RSA Fellows are already well versed in these issues and every Fellow I meet seems to be interested. Our ambition should be that the Fellowship becomes a vibrant space for inquiry into and debate about human capability.

2. The RSA’s commitment to an idea of enhanced citizenship should be reflected in the collective commitment of Fellows to have a benign impact on wider society and the commitment of RSA HQ to give Fellows the support and the tools to have that impact. Unlike most other charities, the RSA does not have to focus on only one area of social concern or offer only one variety of intervention. The two successful venture fund winner we discussed on Saturday were a community garden and a new process for public engagement and deliberation.  The RSA believes that future citizens should be more engaged, more resilient and creative, and more altruistic. Any Fellow-led idea or intervention which can help towards this broad progressive goal is welcome. The important thing is that we cement the shift from a perception (often unfair) that the RSA is a social club for its members to the commitment that the RSA Fellowship should be a powerful force for good in the world.

3. I finished my annual lecture this year with a Margaret Mead quote along the lines ‘never imagine that a small group of determined people can’t change the world; in fact, it is all that ever has’. This is the good news. The bad news is that it is far from easy to get small groups of people – however committed and talented – to feel able to work together to make a difference. Obviously, this is even harder when the people concerned are volunteers with busy lives. I have suggested in the past that effective group working requires that the group is made up of people who are able to work co-operatively (not hierarchically or bureaucratically), that the group has enough initial capacity in terms of commitment and skills, and that the group is able quickly to develop a strong ‘content proposition’ (the thing it is going to try to do). The problem is that if the group has two out of three of these attributes it isn’t generally enough for success. To this I would add a new insight emerging from the growth of Fellows’ projects: successful RSA projects require the three characteristics I described above, the group then needs to see very quickly how working in the RSA adds value to their endeavours (through the brand, seed funding, access to the wider Fellowship, insights from the lectures programme or projects team etc), then, as the project starts to develop (and if there is ambition for it to last and to grow) a route to sustainability needs to be developed possibly involving accessing funds from other sources or developing a viable social business.

The third part of our ambition for Fellowship is that we develop powerful insights into how to get groups of people working together to develop and implement good ideas. This challenge is certainly not one many other membership organisations have worked out how to crack (which may be why so many beat a path to our door to find out how we are doing and collect tips). Of course, we don’t yet have the answers but the RSA is in this for the long haul, and just by continually asking the right questions Fellows and staff (for example through the work of the  Fellowship Council) are beginning to develop valuable knowledge and experience. 

Through shared interests and awareness, through making a real difference to the world and through developing insight into how to foster collaboration and innovation the Fellowship will become the driving force of the RSA as a 21st century enlightenment organisation.

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