Life is full of ironies. Mostly they seem to be tragic.
Since I started at the RSA (indeed it was one of the reasons I took the job) my priority has been to increase Fellows’ engagement. That’s why in terms of investment we have steadily increased the funding we put into Fellows’ charitable activities, both through our team of network managers and the new Catalyst fund. It was also why the Trustees and I were so keen to set up the Fellowship Council with Fellows directly elected from region and nations.
It was also why we had questioned the method of directly electing Trustees to the board. In those direct elections among the whole Fellowship the turnout has been consistently low (below 5%). Many parts of the country – because their absolute number of Fellows is relatively low - had little or no chance of ever having a local representative on the Board. And anyway – as the directly elected Fellows would be the first to recognise - the links between these Trustees and the wider Fellowship (including our regional committees) were often quite weak.
Last year we proposed that instead of directly electing two Trustees we should have two people nominated by the Fellowship Council. There was a full consultation over this proposal last year and there was very little disagreement (in fact, it was not even raised as an issue at the 2009 AGM). These new Trustees have already made sure that the voice of active Fellows is more fully heard on the Board.
On the basis that the new system seemed to be working well the Trustees proposed this year to remove the remaining four directly elected posts. As Chief Executive I did not advise them that the move would be controversial, instead my focus has been on how to devolve more power to the Fellowship Council and how to move toward it being a wholly elected body.
How wrong could I have been? It is very clear that many Fellows feel that it would be profoundly wrong to remove the four posts. Indeed, I have found myself compared to the ruler of North Korea among other unflattering comparisons. So I was very relieved when after talking to the Fellowship Council the Trustees decide to withdraw the proposal and instead to begin the process of directly electing the four Trustees. The task for us now is to try to make sure every Fellow knows about these Trustee elections and to get a much better turnout than in the past.
Having worked with the Trustees to make Fellowship engagement the Society’s top priority and having seen real progress in terms of the many local groups that have sprung up, and the emergence of local projects and issue-based networks (such as the social enterprise network featured in the last Journal), it has been really painful to see the proposal about Board composition creating the opposite impression.
With the amazing success of our lectures and website, with our research getting noticed, with new partners from the third and private sector lining up to work with us, and with a new clarity to the RSA’s mission I have heard lots of compliments about the direction the Society is going in and the impact we are starting to have.
But if you enjoy compliments you have also to be ready to face the brickbats. Even though the motives behind reform were benign, my advice to the Trustees about how Fellows want to be represented was simply wrong. I’m glad the Trustees have dropped the proposal. I am grateful to the Fellows who alerted us to their concerns. Most of all I am sorry: the proposal caused needless controversy and distracted us from what really matters – the scope for the RSA and our amazing Fellows to be a powerful force for good in the world. I am sure this is a mission that the new directly elected Trustees will play their full part in shaping and delivering.