Research thoughts

I really hope this posts in the right place of this site as I'm finding it a little hard to navigate!

 At any rate I wanted to add some thoughts from the RSA's perspective about what we'd like to see from this project.

 I suppose the trend that all this discussion is trying to capture is the journey from 'membership' organisations to 'movements', and what that means for the nature, structure, purpose, and business models of existing membership organisations. No mean feat to cover all of this and as someone with a thinktank background the breadth of the issues being asked here makes me a little nervous.

 So I'd like to propose that alongside all the ongoing work around products, services, consultancy and the rest that we generate through this process, we should actually invest in a research phase, in the sense of both desk-based and action research work.

 For me I would like this phase to cover the following questions:

  • What are the links between membership and identity?
  • Do we care more or less about 'belonging' now, and what places/people/movements do we want to belong to?

These kinds of questions are part of some work that's important in any futures exercise, which is understanding the drivers for changes in society. It would be interesting to think about the full range of drivers that are having an impact on the world of membership organisations. Clearly social media is one example of a really important driver; what are some others?

Then there's another part of the research which is more about describing the world as it is now - for example who's joining membership organisations, how are they working now, what do they do to engage their members and so on.

 I will think further about how we might structure some research along these lines, but in the meantime I'd welcome comments from others participating on this site...



Great thoughts

Hi Sophia

Thanks for posting these thoughts, they're really useful. They sparked off various responses for me:

I like the question about membership and identity, and about belonging. I have a tendency to always move on from the what? to the so what? so my next two questions in response to your first two, might be:

  • Why will people join? What benefits (using the term loosely) will attract them in the future? (obviously will be different in different contexts for different people)
  • What type of organisations or movements will people join? What forms of association will attract them?

Those are big questions but I think a mixture of futures work and a good literature review may get us some way. And if we can attract money for some primary research, great!

Starting to map out the drivers - I'm keen to do this as you know (I'm presenting this bit on April 22nd). DAVID! Can you set us up a new core page to start this?

Describing the world as it is now - I'm quite keen still on my pledgebank idea as a way of doing this...

Research page

Megan - you, Sophia and colleagues have editing rights to the research page here and an additional child page to that is here

I have also put the key blog posts under the research page (use outline when editing a blog post to do that)

Is that OK? Alternatively we could link to a Google doc which is public. Drupal isn't brilliant on wiki-like functions

Great, thanks

Great, thanks


I think the drivers list needs to come under key ideas - its not just about research, its about the background to this entire project about what is driving shifts in membership. So I've started a new heading with a few initial bullets here

Guide outline

Megan - your page is brilliant! You have taken mud thrown at the wall and baked a pie ... well, started on the recipe. This looks like an excellent start to an outline for a guide, and general framework for gathering furthe content.


Hi Sophia

I would love to see some more detailed research on the UK experience in member organisations. I think there may even be some new research already being generated through universities around 'social capital' and there is some already published strong enough to look at trends... mostly pointing to reductions in membership. Examples of dramatic falloffs in memberships include political party membership which was close to 3.5 million 25 years ago and is now less than 500,000. Church attendance has halved over the same period.

David Robinson of Community Links and We Are What We Do gave a particularly interesting lecture about social capital and engagement and he described an 'engagement funnel', where the really active and engaged members lie at the small end. But people have the potential to move up the funnel from 'occasionals' to 'serial activists'.

Also what you say about identity is very relevant. The Young Foundation's research shows that a generation ago, half of all electors 'identified very strongly' with a political party. Today that figure is one in six.

The reason why I feel the thinking around all these matters is so broad is because essentially this is an area which includes massive societal shifts around club, organisation and brand affiliation. But it is by no means all gloomy - there are many positive aspects to the trends, which points away from the insular view - membership is changing. Referring back to David Robinson's talk, volunteering is still strong but it is very different. People want to help, want to volunteer but on a much more relaxed, ad-hoc, low-commitment basis. People may not belong to political parties but they do take part in events, for example: Make Poverty History, when 30% of 16 -24 year olds wore the white band.

Then if you further add Clay Shirky's exciting insights on group creation. . . .

The key points for me are that people have a very wide choice of affiliations and membership, that there is an enormous surge in what can be joined, from the loose ties of facebook groups to memberships which require a membership fee such as the RSA.

Ultimately it is likely, in my opinion, that organisations with a lot of imagination, a warm welcome, trustworthy core values, opportunities to move up the engagement funnel and who offer members the opportunity to contribute (as well as participate and have fun) are likely to continue to do well.

It would be great to see some research showing that the trends were swinging back to positive social participation - in whatever form that took.

I am optimistic. Smile

Also optimistic, but...

Hi Tessy

Lots of interesting thoughts here! I think its generally said that despite falling membership of traditional institutions like political parties and trade unions, membership of voluntary organisations is healthy (and growing?) Of course that partly depends on how you define membership (something we've yet to pin down well enough here I think). Joining make poverty history is different to paying subs to an organisation. In terms of the practical concerns of membership organisations in our sector, they are probably optimistic about the ability to engage and involve people as you describe, but they may be less certain about their ability to continue to generate a revenue stream from traditional membership, if that is something they've relied on in the past...