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’.
In my annual lecture I argued that a decline in the effectiveness and legitimacy of hierarchies is sapping the problem solving capacity of society. I also argued that many third sector organisations are treating their members in a largely transactional way and thus failing to tap into the solidaristic potential of belonging. A big part of both problems is failing systems of governance: Which is why a post about the governance systems of the RSA is much more important than it sounds……
One of my many less than fully successful catch phrases for the RSA (‘if there had been fewer they might have been more memorable’ I hear my reader saying) has been ‘the kind of organisation the twenty first century needs’. By this I meant that the RSA’s contribution to progress should comprise not just outputs like RSAnimate, research reports and practical innovations but also the way we operate.
This ambition is reflected in a number of commitments; to become a top quality employer, to be generous, open and collaborative and – most important of all – to release the ‘hidden wealth’ of talent and commitment in the Society’s Fellowship.
Less exciting but equally important should be governance. A few months ago, I drew attention to some interesting findings in a report on professional associations by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (sadly, now hidden behind the CIM’s members only pay wall). This quote in particular caught my eye:
Sometimes governance issues can have a paralysing effect on an organisation. One organisation was completely hamstrung for over two years and made no progress at all whilst a war raged on its council
Anyone with a passing knowledge of the RSA’s recent history will know that governance issues have been a big headache here too. But now it feels like we have made big strides.
Historically, the relationship between RSA HQ in John Adam Street and the lay committees of Fellows in RSA regions and nations has been cold at best and oftentimes outright hostile. I remember one distinguished former Chair of the RSA Board telling me ‘the one thing I never tried to do was sort out the regions – it just wasn’t worth it’. But now, in almost all cases, we have clear, open and increasingly ambitious relationships between the centre and the nations and regions, focussed primarily on maximising Fellow engagement and impact.
Vikki Heywood appearance and speech to the Fellowship Council yesterday was the first by the Chair of the RSA Board for some years. It was well received and reflects the Society now having – in my humble opinion – the strongest and most engaged Board in my six years in post.
Best of all is the Fellowship Council made up of forty Fellows from all around the UK and beyond.
When you have been involved in creating something you are unlikely to be the most objective judge of its merits. So one reason I feel able to sing the praises of the RSA Fellowship Council was that I wasn’t even in attendance yesterday at what was, by all accounts, its most successful meeting.
The Council is still only four years old but it has come on leaps and bounds and now feels like a hub of commitment, ideas and activism. It may not be an unusual thing to say of a governance institution but – believe me – it is an unusual thing to say sincerely; the Fellowship Council contributes not only to accountability, it is a real asset to the organisation as a whole, making a concrete and tangible contribution to the pursuit of our charitable mission.
How has this been achieved? I offer four reasons:
For the RSA’s staff and Trustees Fellowship engagement has now been a non-negotiable strategic priority for several years. That the process of engagement should be designed and overseen by Fellows themselves was integral to our approach. What kept us going in the early rather rocky days of the Council was that there was simply no choice; the Council had to succeed if the strategy was to succeed.
The Council’s remit is clear and based on a right and a responsibility. It is the right of the Council to be the key forum for debate and recommendation-making over matters directly relating to the Fellowship, but it is also the responsibility of the Council to avoid become an alternative Trustee Board. Given that just about everything the RSA does has implications for Fellows there are, of course, grey areas, but over time the FC has come to understand the shades of grey and it has been enormously helped in this through the election of two FC members to sit on the Trustee Board, something which goes a long way to ensuring the two forums understand and respect each other.
People and process
Again from difficult beginnings the Council has over four years become more and made comprised of Fellows who are involved not because they enjoy serving on committees but because they want to be part of the project to make the Fellowship a powerful force for good. Most of the work of the FC is undertaken in working groups comprising Council members, Trustees and staff. Over the same period under the wise stewardship of its chairs and deputy chairs the Council has itself moved from being rather formal and obsessed with governance to being much more discursive, creative and focussed on impact.
The FC has kept getting better but it has done so against the backdrop of steady and concerted progress on Fellowship engagement more generally. More Fellows are getting involved with the RSA and working with each other and the quality and impact of what they are doing is improving too. This leads me to the tentative conclusion that governance has a better chance of being functional if it is focussed on significant externally-directed process of change
Many organisations and many organisational leaders have long since given up on the idea that governance can be an integral part of their impact. Many aspects of democratic governance are clunky or irrelevant being seen by policy makers as hurdles to get through not processes that add value let alone ones that are involved in change itself. The unfinished but impressive journey of the RSA Fellowship Council shows it doesn’t have to be this way.