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.