I am burning the midnight oil tonight finalising a speech I am delivering tomorrow on the role of membership organisations in building a Big Society and came across two quotes which I thought captured well some of the problems I have tried to address in the speech:
First, Harvard based political scientist, Theda Skocpol, from her essay ‘Advocates without members – the recent transformation of American civil life’.
‘In huge membership federations, local chapters were widespread, full of leaders and members seeking to recruit others. Hundreds of thousands of local and supralocal leaders had to be elected and appointed every year. Privileged men and women who climbed ladders of vast membership organisations had to interact in the process with citizens of humble or middling means and prospects. Classic membership federations built two-way bridges between classes and places and between local and translocal affairs. Now, in a civic America dominated by centralised, staff-driven advocacy organisations, the bridges are eroding’.
While only some of this account may apply to the UK, one thing we do know for sure is that recent decades have seen the emergence of an ever steeper social class gradient for civic participation. Putting these trends together in an analysis of social capital in Britain, Paola Grenier and Karen Wright conclude:
‘There are two fundamental factors which undermine the effectiveness of modern civic participation to generate trust across society. The first is the increasing concentration of participation – largely in the A, B, and C1 social classes. The second is the commodification of membership and volunteering, making it increasingly about private benefit, hollowing out its social meaning, and weakening its relationship with social capital’.
As RSA Fellows and regular readers of this blog will know, I haven’t exactly been covering myself in glory recently in terms of engaging the Society’s members. But hopefully when we have found an agreed way forward on the composition of the Trustee Board we can get back to the Society nationally in its regions and locally exploring how best to create a culture of participation in the Fellowship.
So, last week, at one of our regular staff meetings, I was delighted that several hands popped up to tell us about new Fellows’ networks springing up – in Milton Keynes, Oxford and London, to name but a few.
The example of one London group is particularly interesting – called Profit with Purpose, it is a network of RSA Fellows who are looking at ways in which organisations can make social responsibility central to the way they operate, rather than something additional that can only be sustained when business is healthy.
This week about forty members of the network met to debate whether businesses, and law firms in particular, ought to work towards positive social and environmental ends, even when this conflicts with other goals. I hear a lively discussion was held around the issue of moral responsibility and how we reconcile our individual responsibilities with the values of the organisations we belong to. One of the speakers, himself a Fellow, Professor Simon Robinson, argued that it is up to us to ask questions about what is ethically valuable, to give an account of ourselves and invite others to do likewise.
This network sounds to me like an example of RSA Fellows doing exactly that – addressing a pressing issue through informed debate and practical action. In fact, the group has ambitious plans to gather together Fellows’ good practice in business and then develop an ideal picture of what a socially and environmentally responsible business could look like.
If there are Fellows (or even non Fellows) out there with a corporate background or an interest in this subject and would like to get involved, our Networks Manager for London, Sam Thomas (firstname.lastname@example.org), would love to hear from you.