I promise if you read this post to the end I will make it worth your while…
A few weeks ago I read a very interesting report by Chris Denton of the Chartered Institute of Marketing. Structured interviews with senior directors of 44 professional associations revealed a number of key findings, many of them quite challenging. Many associations were, variously, suffering declining membership, finding it hard to hold on to commercial income and struggling to be as influential as they wished. But the section which caught my eye was on ‘the constitutional challenge'. It contained the following paragraph:
‘Sometimes governance issues can have a paralysing effect on an organisation. One organisation was completely hamstrung for over two years and made no progress at all whilst a war raged on its council’
As Fellows know, we have had our fair share of governance issues here at the RSA and so it is great to report a really positive meeting today of our Fellowship Council, a body which is becoming more confident, cohesive and influential. The Council and its many working groups sit at the apex of a huge and growing web of Fellow engagement in the work of the Society stretching from staff support for Fellows' Catalyst bids, to FRSAs on the governing boards of our Academy schools, to Fellows engagement in change processes including reform of the RSA regions and the development of a new IT strategy.
Standing back from all this and knowing many other membership organisations would like to learn from our experience, some key messages emerge.
Balance determination and patience
There are lots of barriers to greater member engagement (both from the organisation and also from Fellows with a more traditional model of activism) so a change of practices, expectations and culture takes a long time. I thought at the outset we could simply open the door and hundreds or Fellows would rush enthusiastically through. But I was unrealistic both about the organisation’s capacity to change and the Fellows’ response to suddenly being offered new opportunities.
Engagement has to be a mission for the whole organisation.
It seems now that hardly a conversation takes place in the RSA without colleagues asking how we can get Fellows involved and draw on their skills. But because the benefits were clearer to staff in the Fellowship team than the rest of the organisation it has taken time and careful consideration of capacities and incentives to embed engagement as a truly corporate goal. Yet, it is only when recognition of the value of Fellowship engagement becomes ubiquitous that the potential starts to get realised.
Focus on the positives
Along the journey (which is far from complete) there have been many Fellows who have been unsure of our direction and some who have been openly hostile. Having a thin skin I have sometimes let myself get too focused on people who will probably never be happy (not, that is, unless I fall under the wheels of the Number 11 bus). In the end it is nearly always a better use of energy to support and encourage the positive people than spend fruitless hours trying to change the minds of the committed cynics.
Invest to reap
Engagement doesn't come cheap. Whether it’s the Catalyst fund, network managers or new Fellows evenings (we had a great one last night), over the last four years the RSA has substantially increased the money is spends directly on supporting Fellows’ activities (by about five fold, albeit from a low base). This has had knock on effects - so for example our Projects team now has to raise the lion’s share of its funds from external sources. But this isn't just throwing money at a problem. I have always believed in the end we would achieve the ultimate aim: Fellows at the heart of delivering the Society’s charitable mission. As we see Catalyst winners get substantial third party investment, more Fellows approach us with leads for projects and funding and increasing evidence that it is Fellowship engagement which is a key part of the distinctiveness and impact of our work, this belief is starting to be validated.
There are many other lessons and – as I say – we have a lot further to go. But it feels like our big experiment is generating evidence which should offer other organisations the confidence to take engagement seriously.
So, if you've got this far thank you. As promised, the reward: Today sees the launch of a new and wonderful RSA Animate, which by happy coincidence is not unrelated to themes in this post.
Fabian Wallace-Stephens (Foresight Lead)
What mix of soft, technical, and digital skills will be needed in different sectors or local economies in the future?
Riley Thorold explains how recent RSA work on public participation can inform this broader shift towards a more active and empowering democracy when levelling up.
Complex interactions between health, economic and social outcomes are at the centre of health outcome inequalities. RSA Chief Executive Andy Haldane examines the interventions that could break this adverse health/economic cycle.