If not now, when? - RSA

If not now, when?

Blog 4 Comments

  • Fellowship
  • Fellowship in Action
  • Leadership
  • Social innovation

So, here’s the problem. I feel fortunate to get a few hundred readers for articles that are about putting the world to rights. Now I need to persuade you to give me two minutes to talk about something much closer to home; the organisation I run. All I can say is ‘please?’

In a few months, when the refurbishment of our HQ is complete, we’ll host a series of high profile events. The script will be written on both sides. On one, the argument that we need new institutions to address the challenges of a volatile, polarised world, on the other, that the RSA has become one of those institutions.

Occasionally people are kind enough to ask me how the RSA has grown stronger and more influential. I always talk first about Fellowship. The change has been fundamental.

A decade ago Fellowship was primarily seen as a status opaquely awarded for past achievements. Now when someone joins it is a statement of values and intentions. Initially the shift from emphasising status cost us Fellows but focusing on values and change has added many more.  

A decade ago we had one brave but frustrated employee traipsing the country organising rather random events. Now we have a growing team of a dozen colleagues based here and around the world supporting a massive variety of Fellow events and activities. In the old days we didn’t encourage or invest in Fellow-led projects, now, directly and indirectly, we bring hundreds of thousands of pounds (and a range of other support) to Fellow initiatives. Like this one combatting isolation.

A decade ago the most active group was called ‘Fellows’ voices’ and had been established to demand attention. Now thousands of Fellows are active in networks – mostly self-organising - on issues ranging from sustainability to education to manufacturing.

A decade ago here at HQ the attitude outside the Fellowship department too often seemed to be that Fellows were a useful source of funds but otherwise a bit of a challenge. Now every department and every project sees Fellows as part of how the RSA achieves change in the world. Indeed increasingly we are co-designing projects with Fellows, as we have been with a new public service reform programme.  

This has been a hard, incremental process of change of which Fellows themselves have been the key drivers. It is the most important thing we’ve done but as CEO I have made mistakes and learnt hard lessons, which I am always keen to share. Even today, I still think we are only part of the way to fully empowering our Fellows as change makers.

As for Fellows themselves, what you get out of the experience generally reflects what you put in, but I have lost count of the people who have told me the RSA has changed their lives. For some it was simply having close access to new ideas and challenging opinions. For others it was engaging with a particular project, like the network of local ambassadors which emerged from our work on heritage. There are many projects and social enterprises that got their first impetus from an RSA Catalyst grant and the scale of the ambition is growing, for example with our community bank initiative. For others the decisive moment was a chance conversation they had at an RSA meeting or in the café here at John Adam Street. Which is why we are so excited that the space for Fellows to meet and talk will soon be much bigger and better, and that we’re exploring partnerships to create satellite RSA hubs around the country and eventually the world.

As many RSA speakers have pointed out, these are confusing, exhilarating but also very challenging times. I hear people say we need to restore our hope in the future. But as someone wiser than me said ‘it is less hope that leads to action than action that leads to hope’. For thousands of people the RSA has been the vehicle for action. And even for Fellows who simply pay their annual donation because we do good work there is the knowledge that the RSA is always there offering ways to get more involved and make difference.

So, if you’ve stuck with me and read this far I will ask you one more favour. If you’re not a Fellow check out our website and think about what you could get out of belonging. And if you are already a Fellow think about nominating someone else who could join our team. There really could be no better time.       

Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • PS - Comments are of course my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of others named, although my urgent questions at the AGM did get a lot of support in the Fellows Forum.

  • If not now, then when indeed!? ;-)

  • Hope in action (and organic, convivial teams) has certainly been a strong theme here in the Greater Brighton area. Since Ewart Woolridge, Libby Darling, Lucy Stone and others joined in the revival of the loca network - and the deeply inspiring Claire Doran became our area manager - things are really heading in the direction you suggest here Matthew.

    One of the most important things is that we maintain continuity of Area Manager, hopefully keeping the same person for a few years or more. We have had something like 7 in 9 years I think? When there is a handover, this needs to be done very carefully and knowledge by transferred. Attracting, developing and retaining the best Area Managers seems an ongoing HR issue in this Area at least. You have a real gem in Claire and I hope we can continue to work with her productively over the years ahead.

    Incentivising membership of Fellow-led area teams is also key. How could this be improved? Claire will have some ideas because she's certainly putting wind in our sails. We need to share the (unpaid) work and it can be very time consuming. Some people have fulltime paid jobs that can fit it into or pensions to look forward to. Increasingly, as the RSA attracts younger Fellows, we do not. We are mostly all involved volunteering in multiple roles as well as full-time jobs and other caring / family roles. 

    Personally I thought the RSA Fellowship had too much potential to ignore, and I was not willing to just pay my fees for a London-centric Fellowship. But clearly there is still far more available for London Fellows and we have to keep looking at the distribution of resource unless we want a repeat of the British Empire. How are our overseas Fellows faring? None to well from what I hear.

    Bringing in formats like World Cafe has also helped move on from the top down - book launches and experts injecting us with their knowledge too. Our Resilience & Hope in Action event was very well attended and highly engaging. Sadly much of the visual content we fought to get budgets for and worked hard to beg borrow and steal resources for so that those who couldn't attend would benefit from, was lost by head office and never made in far into social media feeds.


    Eminent, internationally renowned speakers lost into the ether perhaps because it was only a regional event? What are the guidelines for RSA social media channels? Who gets the stage and why?

    No mention at all on The RSA main feed after SO much effort.


    So these roads lead to improvement and it will be interesting to hear what the sentiment is at the next AGM.

    Wishing you all the best, as ever, and still curious about how many years you stay at the helm without anyone else having a chance (or indeed you getting to do something else with your life?). Are we up to 12 now? What's the policy around that? Still waiting for an answer.

    And at the same time, incredibly grateful to you and everyone at the RSA who is becoming more and more heliotropic. More Eco, less Ego as Otto Scharmer from MIT u.lab would suggest.


    Now an RSA-sponsored u.lab hub in key regions... THAT would be progress. Fred Laloux points in the right direction but u.lab is next level. Maybe next year hey.



  • Vaclav Havel on the subject of hope, "Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good."

Related articles