Turning a tanker: recreating one of the oldest membership organisations around

I thought I'd share my comments from yesterday's conference at NCVO. I was talking about the RSA's experiences in renewing itself as a membership organisation that's fit for purpose in the 21stC.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the RSA, it's a 250 year old Enlightenment organisation, with a long-standing commitment to achieving positive social change. That commitment has not waned - far from it - but over the last year we have been trying to make sense of what it means in the modern world. Two particular things seem different to when the RSA first started. First, the nature of the social challenges we face are complex and global in their nature, requiring the actions of many to tackle them (I'm thinking about climate change, terrorism, food security to name a few). Second, people increasingly have the tools to work together on issues they care about, unmediated by organisations - here I'm thinking in particular about the role that web 2.0 can play, but one only needs to think about farmers organising by text message to realise it's about more than that too...

The RSA today has 27,000 Fellows (what we call our members), from a very diverse set of backgrounds, spread all over the world. Until recently, these Fellows were seen as a rather passive audience, with our mission being 'delivered' through the production of pamphlets, seminars and lectures, similar to a traditional thinktank approach to social change. What we are trying to do now, alongside this thinktank-y work, is create a Fellowship that is much more focused on action - where the Fellows themselves, rather than the organisation, are the agents of change. It's a huge challenge for an organisation which has a massive legacy and a culture that has in the past tended to be wary of overdemanding Fellows with half-baked ideas (I'm exaggerating, but you get my point...)

Over the last year, with the generous support of NESTA, we have been testing our hunch that the single biggest value of being a member of the RSA is meeting, collaborating and working with other Fellows in pursuit of real social change. We've experimented with new, more interactive events based on Open Space techniques. We've also tried to make the most of online opportunities, developing a proto 'ideas marketplace' online. The current version is a test site, but the lessons we've learnt about how to make such a site work are being incorporated as I type into the RSA's new website.

And given we've only been running for 7 months or so, we've made some real progress. Over 500 of our Fellows are signed up online; we have about 15 networks of Fellows around the country working on issues they care about, like reducing reoffending, or re-engaging excluded young people.

There's a lot further to go however. The 3 challenges I shared in the workshops yesterday were:


The RSA doesn't pay its Fellows to work on projects: instead it wants to make it easier for Fellows to *do* something with their passions, to turn those passions into real projects that have an impact. So we've had to learn how as an organisation we can unleash those passions. We've found that at the heart of doing this is the need to 'hear' people, to acknowledge them, and to help connect them to others who share those passions. Of course, increasingly sophisticated tagging systems and so on can help, but this stuff needs a human touch. Facilitation is a new role for somewhere like the RSA, but it's increasingly forming part of people's job descriptions, and this will need to continue.

Creating the conditions

The RSA created a small team (the RSA Networks team) to run the work that's gone into this change project so far. Our constant challenge has been to remind people that we are not another project on the work plan, but instead that we are the engine of change for the organisation. Every single interaction Fellows have with the RSA needs to communicate the right messages, and invite action - from the format of the lectures, to the design of the welcome letter. And every part of the RSA needs to consider how to involve Fellows, which means looking again at how we design projects, and what incentives staff have in their roles. Any organisation seeking to engage with their members on new terms needs to see this work as affecting all the 'touchpoints' of the organisation from the receptionists to the chief executive!

Challenging mindsets

Related to this is a problem that any membership organisation seeking to create more action-focused partnerships with their members will face: that organisations have an annoying habit of building walls and creating power dynamics between people on the inside (staff) and people on the outside (members). Those staff need time and support to recognise the potential benefits reaped by working more openly and collaboratively. Our tactic at the RSA has been to take something of a guerilla approach, trying to 'infect' all the different parts of the organisation one way or another with our work, and finding advocates in different departments and offices who can inspire others around them.


This stuff takes time; many of our Fellows who were excited when we set out on this journey are frustrated at how slow progress has sometimes felt. But we have learnt that you cannot underestimate the scale of cultural change implicit in the desire to turn members into agents for social change in their own right. But the huge potential makes it all worth it. Just think, if we engaged 1% of our Fellowship in projects for social change, we would be nearly 4 times as big as the next largest thinktank in the UK. I vote for what we're doing any day. I think the vast majority of our Fellows would too.

Hi Sophia - I found this

Hi Sophia - I found this post very inspiring.

 What used to happen of course is that the 'strategy' was invisible and we would just marvel at the results.  I like very much the openness of this process at the RSA and I think it is an important aspect of its long term success. By understanding the ideas behind the actions it helps all the Fellows develop a more constructive perspective on time scales and developments.

I wish I had read this before writing elsewhere that I don't like the boat turning metaphor ..... but in my view the RSA is currently more like a rather exciting swirling animation of human thought, enthusiasm and goodwill!