This evening we are holding the RSA AGM 2008. It’s an opportunity to stand back and look where the RSA has got to and reflect on what we have learnt.
Last year I said almost in passing that the fundamentals of the Society remain strong. Now, looking at the economic climate ahead, this seems like a much more important point to make. Our investments have suffered from the stock market downturn but we have no need to call on them at present. Fellowship numbers continue to rise, albeit more slowly and, despite the hit many people are taking on their personal finances, the drop-out rate is steady. Taking out some one-offs, like the Academy donation, last year’s budget was in surplus and this year is looking strong too. Even the hospitality business is holding up. Few other venues could say the same.
One area of unquestionable progress has been the RSA as a platform for ideas. Our lectures programme goes from strength to strength. To take one example, we have been key supporters of the Birmingham Book Festival with our successful events including attracting Any Questions to the city last Friday. The Journal is widely praised and I have lost count of the people asking about how we revamped our web site.
Other areas have been more challenging. In my frequent conversations with Fellows and visits to regions I find an ever greater support for the idea that the Fellowship should aim to be a powerful network for social progress. But we are still learning how to turn this aspiration into action. Glitches like the delaying of the on-line networks platform have added to our sense of impatience. The next twelve months have to be when the RSA Fellowship, with the full backing of HQ, starts to deliver on the ground.
Change has been slow too in programme. We are still able to boast that in the Opening Minds curriculum (now being taken on in out Academy) we have one of the most influential think tank projects of recent years but this success has not been replicated in other projects. Initially, I had thought it was just a matter of closing down failing projects and developing better ones. But the deeper problem was a lack of confidence and gaps in core competencies. The team is now stronger, its vision clearer and new skills are being developed and applied. Our education campaign is going to make a big splash, our design team is setting itself new ambitions and our arts and ecology programme is truly innovative. Over the next few months programme will be generating important outputs and there are some exciting projects in the pipeline.
There are few parts of the RSA that aren’t engaged in fundamental change. And this creates its own difficulties. When senior people are immersed in trying to transform their own part of the organisation there isn’t much energy left over for working together on the big picture. If the RSA has suffered from change overload this is something for which I hold up my hand. The good news is that there is still a lot to be learnt in your late forties!
The RSA has done great things in the past but too often it has punched below its weight. Now, once again, we are seen as an organisation that is going places. The key task for me – and for the Society’s Trustees – to bring all this change and ambition together behind a compelling account of the RSA’s core purpose. My best take on this is that the RSA is here to develop citizens for the future. Being clear what this means and how we can align the whole organisation with this mission is the next stage on our journey.