This is the last of three posts exploring key issues facing the RSA as we enter 2013…
It is often said that the Fellowship has the potential to be the RSA’s greatest and most distinctive asset. In truth, the Society’s leaders have not always taken seriously the challenges involved in delivering on this aspiration. Although many individual Fellows have played an important role in the RSA’s activities and governance, there was until recently a lack of clarity and commitment when it came to the engagement of the wider Fellowship. There were several problems:
* The status of Fellowship was ambiguous, was it an award for past achievements or an invitation to get involved?
* The expectations of Fellows’ activities were limited with most regional programmes tending to focus on social and cultural events rather than charitable activities, much less civic innovation.
* There was very little investment in Fellows. Back in 2006 there was only one person employed to support their activities.
* Apart from valued individuals who happened to be FRSA, many parts of the organisation tended to keep Fellows at arm’s length.
* There were, at best, suspicious and often downright hostile relations between the regions and nations run by Fellows and the Society’s HQ, a situation which previous RSA Chairs have told me had persisted for decades.
* It was perhaps symbolic of the general situation that arguably the most active Fellows’ network a few years back was called ‘Fellows’ Voices’ and was, in essence, a group set up to protest at the lack of opportunities for engagement in the Society’s work.
Things really have changed since then:
* Relations between HQ and the RSA nations and regions are most positive and on a more professional footing than ever before.
* The Fellowship Council - elected by and made of Fellows – is a powerful, hard working and influential body.
* The Fellowship network team and the Catalyst Fund provide a range of forms of support for a growing number of FRSA groups and initiatives.
* Fellowship engagement in the work of ARC (our research and development team) is strong and is now built in to every major new project from the start.
Despite all this progress still a big question remains. The fact is that over the last five years the Trustees have agreed to invest more and more of the Society’s income in supporting Fellows’ activities, and still the resources we allocate often feel like they are being very thinly stretched.
No one resents this shift (not even the ARC staff who now have very year to go out and raise the funds to do research), after all Fellowship donations are still the Society’s biggest source of income. Yet, the hard truth right now is that pound for pound the money going back into Fellowship is achieving much less real world impact than the resources dedicated to activities in other key areas such as research, development, lectures and on-line content.
This is not a failure nor is it, in any way, a criticism of Fellows. The idea of Fellowship being genuinely central to delivering the Society’s charitable mission is still new. We are learning and improving all the time. And weaknesses in our own central organisation – most frustratingly technology (at last now being solved) – have made it more difficult than it should have been for Fellows to engage with the Society and with each other.
Also, individual Fellows have put an immense amount back into the Society, not only the activists in regions and on the Fellowship Council but, for example, the brilliant group of FRSA who have worked on the development of our ‘Transitions’ social enterprise prison pilot or the former regional chair who has opened the door for the Society to win local funding for a fascinating piece of research in Wiltshire.
It may be that we – Trustees, Fellows and staff – simply need to carry on doing what we are doing and gradually getting better at it. Cultural change is hard to achieve in a paid full time workforce, it is bound to be even harder working with a disparate and busy group of volunteers.
Nevertheless, these posts are about how the RSA moves from good to great and, as I have said throughout, I think this depends most on taking the mission of Fellowship engagement to the next level and doing it in the next couple of years.
We will know we have together achieved something really significant when:
* Projects begun by Fellows and led by Fellows are starting to become as high profile and influential as the research and development projects managed by professional staff and, as a sign of this, Fellows’ projects are starting to access external funds.
* Research among FRSA is showing a high and rising awareness of all aspects of the Society’s work and how Fellows can get involved.
* More Fellows are being recruited (and retained) because they see the RSA, and the Fellowship in particular as a powerful vehicle for innovation and social progress. At present the numbers are pretty steady (which is a good outcome in the current economic environment), but a gradually rising roll will make it possible for us to continue to invest more in Fellowship.
* And, most of all, outside the RSA there is a growing sense that the Fellowship is made up of people with the inclination and the tools to intervene when new solutions are needed.
There are many opinions about how we can achieve this step change. Importantly, the conversation can now take place in the context of good relations with regions and nations and a Fellowship Council humming with energy and enthusiasm.
Given limited resources and a challenging and competitive context am I sure we will make it? No. We are, after all, being more broadly ambitious than any other large membership organisation I know.
As a chief executive with supportive Trustees and a great team of colleagues I can commit to continuing improvement in the quality of the work we undertake at John Adam Street, but success in the Fellowship project, because that project is so diffuse, and because, ultimately, it relies on the attitude and actions of thousands of volunteers cannot be guaranteed.
So my RSA resolution for 2013 is not to deliver a highly engaged and productive Fellowship but to do everything I can to make this exciting prospect more likely and in so doing enable the Society to be ‘the kind of organisation the twenty first century needs’.
Stoke, Leicester, London, Belfast: great people are meeting and committing to action but how do we get to the next stage?
Significant change tends to happen gradually. So often we only spot trends when drawn to a comparison over a longer time frame; for example, when something occurs which reminds us of an earlier event. So it was last night when I attended a splendid gathering of RSA Fellows in Belfast, some of whom had made the effort to travel across the border from the Republic.
Less than two years ago a speech invitation in Newcastle, County Down offered an opportunity to speak to Irish Fellows. It was a more informal gathering than last night and with less notice and organisation. Yet I was struck by several comparisons.
At the earlier event there was only a handful of Fellows and a polite, rather than enthusiastic, response to my urgings to be more active. Also, I had felt my encouragement was undermined by a lack of inspiring examples of mobilisation drawn from other parts of the Fellowship. Last night 25 people came together with different backgrounds and interests but, so it seemed, a shared enthusiasm for the RSA to make a greater impact in Ireland. And this time I was able to offer lots of inspiring examples of Fellow activities, from the civic days in Stoke and Leicester to FRSA networks on social enterprise and corporate responsibility, not to mention the growing list of Catalyst winners.
But in case this sounds like an exercise in organisational self-congratulation (something to which I know I am prone), as I flew home this morning my mind turned to the hard question of how engagement and enthusiasm can be channelled into positive action.
Experience tells me that constructive initiatives made to last rarely emerge from large group discussions. Instead it takes a small number of people who work intensively to develop an idea before bringing it back to the larger group in search of feedback and support. When they work most effectively, these smaller groups are bound by mutual respect and affection and shared enthusiasm (this is particularly vital for voluntary activities in which people naturally want to enjoy themselves) as welll as complementary skills, experience and resources.
My analysis of how first stage gatherings turn into second stage action suggests bad news and good. The former is that however much goodwill exists, it is hard to force these smaller groups into being. They tend to emerge spontaneously as people warm to each other and a spark of intent travels between them. The latter is that by simply gathering people together we increase the chances of these creative interactions occurring.
But what makes the most fertile territory for small group emergence? The processes I have seen applied most often tend either to be too random or too structured. So last night, for example, each person described their reasons for being at the event and it was easy to spot potential synergies. But the format didn’t create enough of an opportunity to start to turn shared interests into mutual commitments. This will rely on follow up and as we all know the enthusiasm we feel in a group can quickly evaporate when we are back as individuals in our busy lives.
In contrast, events which involve post it notes and break out groups often seem to me to end up over-directing people, channelling their interest prematurely and encouraging them to make plans before they have established the interpersonal dynamic on which the viability of those plans depend.
Think how often you have experienced what happens when these respective processes fail; in the first the meeting was great but it didn’t really get anywhere, in the second we all agreed to take something forward but virtually no one followed through.
As Fellowship engagement continues to grow there are more and more events like last night (by the way, I do think RSA Ireland is going to take off) and I am really keen to find a more effective way of making the kinds of connections which lead to creative small groups. As I say, this involves not just identifying shared interests but also complementary attributes and human affinity. So the processes need to combine sharing information (about people’s interests, skills and resources) with an opportunity for people to engage in the kind of interaction which gives strong clues about the likelihood of effective team working.
Does anyone out there have any proven methods I could try out next time?