Of the people who once in a while kindly take the time to read my blog many, I know, aren't Fellows of the RSA. I rarely get as many comments on posts about the Society as I do commenting on, for example, public services or politics. But I want to ask you non-Fellows to stick with this post There is some stuff I want to share with you and I need your feedback. So, in advance, thank you.
Last night was the Society's AGM. It was a bittersweet affair. Sitting on the platform, it wasn't comfortable to be repeatedly verabally assaulted without the right of reply. Worse was seeing so many great people giving up their time not to discuss changing the world but to debate the arcane details of RSA governance. But, the important thing - and it really is important - is that the Fellows, in their votes last night and the bigger postal ballot, gave a strong message.
The opponents of the Trustees' proposals had made pretty clear this, for them, was not just about the detail of the governance changes but a wider referendum on the stewardship of the Society. So a victory for the Trustees by a ratio of 4 to 1 was a clear vote of confidence. As I said yesterday, in ballots like this the disgruntled are more likely to bother to vote, so with a 10% turnout this suggests only a very small proportion of the Fellows feel strongly opposed to how the Society is being run. This gives Trustees and staff a powerful mandate to drive forward with our core strategy.
I have been talking in recent posts about measuring impact. The issue surfaced last night both negatively and positively. The former came in an attack by a Fellow who accused me of being dismissive of his attempts to get the RSA to do a project on manufacturing. (As it happens we are increasing our engagement in manufacturing both through strands of our design work and the focus of the next Journal). But, as I had tried to explain (obviously unsuccessfully) to the Fellow when he came to see me, the problem is not a lack of enthusiasm for manufacturing as a subject area but the difficulty of working out how the RSA could make a useful - impactful - contribution in an area already quite crowded with experts and rather worthy-but-dull policy papers.
For a project to have a chance of success it has to be practical, distinctive and credible. Finding an interesting subject matter is relatively easy; turning it into a good research proposal (not to mention getting the proposal funded) is much, much harder.
While there will, I guess,always be Fellows who feel insulted if their ideas aren't taken up, last night also saw a different and stronger strand of Fellow opinion on show. These are the Fellows who are using the resources and opportunities generated by the RSA to take our charitable mission into their own hands and make great stuff happen.
I think I've written before of the Fellows in Chelmsford who were worried about the future of their town centre. In the last 18 months, with lots of support from RSA staff, they've gone from a small informal group to a fully constituted community interest company which has received funding from a number of sources. Or there was the Fellow from a East Midlands University who came up to me at our fringe at Tory Party conference to say that he and three other colleagues - inspired by the RSA's work - had created a scheme to support a growing number of students to set up their own social enterprises. Or how about the news that one of our Royal Designers for Industry (a great old RSA institution) has volunteered to spend three days at the new RSA Whitley Academy next week working on a project with the pupils?
I know synergy is an ugly word (as well as sounding like a form of renewable power generated by bad people) but the RSA is creating it all over the place. I was able to share a staggering statistic last night: getting on for fifty million RSA lectures have now been watched on line around the world. If just a tiny fraction of the lectures inspire people to think or act differently then this can generate initiatives, these initiatives can grow into projects, the projects can link with research being undertaken at the RSA and then Fellows can take RSA research and start applying it and adapting it locally. It is this unique capacity to connect ideas, research and Fellow activism which makes the RSA the kind of organisation the 21st century needs.
We knew already (and last night confirmed it) that most Fellows are supportive of -and more and more engaged with - the RSA's mission and ambition. But it would also be really interesting to hear what people outside the organisation make of what we are and what we are trying to become (if you want to know more about us just visit the RSA website and spend a few minutes browsing).
Last night we turned a big corner. I really think the Society can accelerate, making a powerful contribution to enhancing human capability and meeting some of the great challenges the world now faces.
I guess I would think that wouldn't I.
But, dear readers, what about you?
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.