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Fellowship – waiting for the Great Leap Forward

January 2, 2013 by
Filed under: The RSA 

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’.




  • http://@caseymorrison casey morrison

    Interesting points on the future of membership, and how we move it from informational transactions to action.

    I see this as falling between two distinct camps (which i think is a good thing):
    1 – fellow initiates a project, seeks funding & support to deliver
    2 – fellow wants to lead change but has no project

    The fundamental question for me is how we open up what we are doing in order for more organic projects/research/information to be made available. I think Roxanne Persaud’s lists on twitter ( are a great way of putting a framework around what is already happening and offering coordination at the point where it is needed.

    On a Change Management framework i think we have knowledge, desire, skills & optimism – what we might need to work on is facilitation, stimulation & reinforcement..?

    There is a lot of info on network theory, user led organisations, the decline of traditional hierarchy that says this should work (and I work for a large membership organisation). However for a long time money has been the answer to any question, now we are trying to make energy & inclination the answer and it will take momentum and time..

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  • David Wilcox

    Maybe we need a change of mindset and a move from the notion of “engagement”. The latest Journal has a panel on the four ways that Fellows can “engage with the RSA”, and Matthew uses the same framework in this post. That implies two RSAs – the Society run by the staff, and the Fellowship that has to be “engaged” like some supposedly apathetic bunch of local residents. This is very evident online, with one site run by staff where Fellows are occasionally invited to post, and other sites for Fellows where staff very rarely contribute.
    A frequent cry from Fellows is the difficulty of engaging staff …
    I do believe everyone is trying really hard, and big improvements are underway …. but couldn’t we achieve a lot more as one RSA, with different roles in a collaborative economy/social ecology?
    I’m with Casey on the need for facilitation, stimulation and reinforcement to achieve that. How about a network of staff and Fellows committed to exploring how to do it? There is an emerging digital champions network, but that alone implies too much emphasis on technology. We need relationship-builders, content creators and curators as well.
    Thanks Matthew for opening up this conversation. I hope we can take it other RSA spaces … and eventually end up with one space not many.

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  • Ferdi

    Hi Matthew, Happy New Year.

    For years there has been a kind of tension between the RSA’s establishment image and the progressive nature of its thinking. The Fellowship body has traditionally been made up of people who are definitely movers and shakers but who do not always share the progressive stance of the HQ or some of the more famous Fellows (Karl Marx, et al).

    How would you feel about a think tank within a think tank, that, in the spirit of the Englightenment, sought answers to some modern questions in the past? There are plenty of educated and cultured people about who care about society and who feel that part of our problem is that we are becoming severed from our cultural roots (Greece, Rome, Christianity, Humanism, Shakespeare, Dickens, Newman … even just an awareness of where we have come from).

    The question I’ve noticed on the RSA site – “can we go on like this?” is asked by folks of many different perspectives. I think a space for this kind of reflection and brain-storming within the RSA (for reformers with conservative and reactionary tendencies as well as progressive ones) might bring in a few more Fellows and would also enrich the debate in a genuinely open and clubbable atmosphere.

    For a start, we could think about how the RSA might do something to promote high culture to the masses, à la Ruskin …

    Best wishes,
    Ferdi McDermott, FRSA etc …
    (I’m a Head Master of a boys’ school in France)

  • David Wilcox

    I hope it might be possible to engage more Fellows in this discussion of the future of Fellowship, so I’ve taken the slight liberty of reposting a key part to our Linkedin group (I couldn’t post it all because of Linkedin restriction to 4000 characters. We need that new platform …).
    My intro on Linkedin:
    “Here’s CEO Matthew Taylor’s vision for FRSAs. What’s yours?”
    RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor posted a blog item about Fellowship last week which I think deserves wider discussion … so I hope he’ll bear with my reposting a key part. (link)
    I’m particularly interested in how realistic is it to expect Fellows to develop high profile projects – matching those of professional staff – within a charitable framework, when we are not meant to take any personal benefit. (It is complex – here’s my take (Link)
    Do we need instead an approach that blends doing good for others with personal, professional development … or even some personal sustenance?
    I hope yours views could make a further contribution to the great discussion we have had around the Board awayday and Mission, summarised here. (link)

  • Indy Neogy

    Some of it is just waiting – if you believe that things like Catalyst are producing interesting projects then it does take time for the portfolio to amount to something that has impact.

    Some of it needs more work however. ARC engagement seem patchier in my experience.

    Speaking personally, I find the process of forming networks with people (Fellows and Staff) connected to the RSA isn’t really facilitated. At which point, the question always comes up – why bother with the RSA, if it’s going to be hard to find the right people, why not just start a project without the RSA constraint?

    (And the RSA constraint is different for different people – for some it’s the complications of reconciling the rules around charities with creating a sustainable social enterprise project or personal involvement, for others it’s that RSA research is locked away from project work, for some it’s that the RSA has no existing interest in an area, so brings nothing but Fellows to the table, for some it’s that the RSA interest exists and is rigid and doesn’t seem to leave room for a different project. Note – this is not about money – that’s a separate issue.)

    Which brings me back to Catalyst – which I would observe tends to be very focused on very practical projects. Which is not a bad thing, but it highlights that there needs to be more to RSA than Catalyst. ARC is part of “what else” but I feel engagement there is on shakier ground.

    My own proposal would be that the problem the RSA suffers is in fact a very 21st century problem. How do you get a disparate, talented, time-poor set of people to donate time and energy towards improving civic life? Isn’t this one of the key problems for civic life generally? Shouldn’t solving this problem actually be an RSA project rather than just the background hum to other things the RSA is doing?

    If you wanted to do basic research, you could look at how many Catalyst projects are started by individuals vs groups. How many of the groups had pre-existing linkages, etc…

    My own personal bias is that I think the RSA could gain a lot from investing in facilitating actual interaction between Fellows. And I use the word “facilitating” with a purpose. The focus of the RSA so far has been to “enable” interaction between Fellows, but this “clearing house” model fails when it comes to “time poor” Fellows. Again, for research you could look back at previous projects – e.g. Ning, LinkedIn, RSA Directory and ask – how much mixing and conversation and discussion vs “clearing house capability” do these things actually create? Beyond research we could actually engage in some practical experiments, which is where it gets more interesting perhaps.

    Key here is that if I’m an RSA member I’m also a member of other groups, so if I have a pre-existing charitable cause or idea, I may or may not bring it to the RSA. It seems to me the RSA should be facilitating mixing and conversation with the aim of generating new causes and ideas from groups of Fellows who would then try to take it through Catalyst or something else and do something with it.

    But the current lack of investment in conversation is a big problem.

  • David Wilcox

    Indy – I’m interested in your work on Thoughtlines. Could we better see RSA as a collaborative economy, or social ecology, that embraces staff, Fellows and the thousands of ther people touched by events, projects and research? If we invested, as you suggest, in facilitating conversations across that ecology, could we make more impact?
    The issue then still remains, of course, what is special about being a Fellow in tha system.

  • Indy Neogy

    David – First of all, I should state my bias – I don’t think very much gets done without good conversations – especially in voluntary situations.

    I’d probably suggest starting small – finding ways to facilitate more (and better) conversations amongst Fellows, then working to include staff. That’s a decent challenge to start with – and it should generate more interesting projects from a wider range of people than might happen otherwise. And that’s a big part of the route to greater impact – people gathering around projects that could not have come out of any other organisation. (I’ll mention more on this in a separate comment for simplicity.)

    Ideas/templates for how to engage with the wider ecology on an event/project/research basis could be put together in parallel ready to be part of new activities. This is also part of greater impact, but I’d hope that this kind of engagement with the context for an activity is already happening.

    As for engaging with the wider ecology more organically, I think it will happen further down the line naturally as we develop our skills/toolsets/infrastructure for investing in conversation.

    Crucial to doing all this is understanding that we’re trying to find a way through a real problem for society, how to connect up busy, talented and as yet unconnected people to undertake something that is not “the day job.” If we don’t appreciate the gravity of that, we’re unlikely to make a difference.

    As for what is special about being a Fellow in the RSA – this doesn’t immediately or any where near completely solve that problem. However, it has two potential benefits in this area:

    1) It comes closer to fulfilling the idea that we have now, that Fellows can really start or join projects and have an impact, make a real difference on an issue they care about.

    (As an aside, I do feel like the RSA underestimates how many Fellow are interested in issues like Manufacturing, which have seen more staff led research & projects up to now.)

    2) Part of why I emphasise starting with facilitating conversation between Fellows is that one benefit of the RSA should be finding interesting people that one might not otherwise. To cross-fertilise in interesting ways across all sorts of boundaries. Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Interdisciplinary, cross-class and more. My experience/perception is that right now this doesn’t really happen – the Fellows list probably has all the needed diversity, but there isn’t enough interaction amongst Fellows to go beyond the surface layer of the kind of people who are natural connectors.

  • David Wilcox

    Thanks Indy – how might we start? Do we need a group of faciliators? There is an emerging group of digital champions/social reporters as part of the digital engagement group, and many of us are interested in how to blend online, events and other networking.

  • Indy Neogy

    A group is good, for blending online with real space the more people involved, the more likely someone can make the physical event.

    It might start by picking an event (for example – a lecture) and finding a room and committing someone to facilitate a conversation post-event. This happens occasionally anyway I’m sure – what makes it different is the intention to keep doing it – and doing more of it. Many RSA events are essentially non-interactive – this would be a start to making more of them. Every event should have an associated opportunity for real conversation. I know you have lots of experience at blending the digital in to the face to face, so that could be built in from the beginning to take advantage of the digital communities that are already conversing around RSA events.

    So far, so easy – right? So why do I keep talking about making it a serious project of the RSA (and not just an effort by interested Fellows like yourself)? Because sustaining this gets hard – we’re talking about a physical add on to as many RSA events as possible if we’re serious about it.

    Of course, an alternative to would to re-engineer RSA events to be more interactive in the first place – but that’s a different challenge.

  • Indy Neogy

    PS David, your links aren’t all working – I’d like to read your thoughts on charitable status, which I haven’t addressed here at all.

    One thought is that if all it takes to satisfy the Charities Czar is that a lecture/event is open to the public, then surely all the conversation would need is to be open to anyone who attended the lecture/event?

    I have thoughts about the wider problem, but I’m not sure this page is the place to post them, the reading is involved enough already!

  • Graham Wilson

    @Indy: “My own personal bias is that I think the RSA could gain a lot from investing in facilitating actual interaction between Fellows. And I use the word “facilitating” with a purpose. The focus of the RSA so far has been to “enable” interaction between Fellows, but this “clearing house” model fails when it comes to “time poor” Fellows. Again, for research you could look back at previous projects – e.g. Ning, LinkedIn, RSA Directory and ask – how much mixing and conversation and discussion vs “clearing house capability” do these things actually create? Beyond research we could actually engage in some practical experiments, which is where it gets more interesting perhaps.”


  • David Wilcox

    Indy – there’s more in the forum discussions on the digital engagement group about evolving RSA as a more networked organisation
    The charitable status issue maybe comes up when you move to projects – although social entrepreneurs supported by RSA offer a precedent.
    Where’s the best place to continue the conversation? We have some energy here, I think.

  • Paul Nash

    Let me say from the off that I can identify with the preceding comments on this blog, I agree, yes, yes and yes again. Your perspective on the RSA will, of course, depend on where you sit; weltanschauung should not be underestimated and the comments here and on the RSA Fellows LinkedIn site are a testament to this. I have said it often enough in different ways but all is not well in the land of Fellows and to those who answer that criticism with a “But!” I say to them: “weltanschauung”.
    If ever there was an organisation whose time has truly come then it’s the RSA and its time is now because much as in the 18th Century we are on the cusp of large scale social change for the world that will one day will emerge from the financial crisis that stems from the start of the 21st century will be very different from the one that closed the 20th. An organisation that positions itself in order to take an enlightened view of the 21st century and to promote new ways of thinking about human fulfillment and social progress through the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce has to have a role and relevance and it would be wrong not to take advantage of that position.
    I have a personal view that forthcoming governments will seek to maintain a false economy either because it helps with the status quo or because the alternative is just too hard to do. We are, even now, experiencing the changes wrought by a hyper-connected society; not forgetting the impact on the disconnected element of that society. Witness the changes to mass media as creation and distribution shifts to the edge. Imagine, if you will the same change in manufacturing; to date we see the impact on high streets as we consume differently what happens when we manufacture in the same place that we consume?
    Jarond Lanier recently made the point that key to democracy is a vibrant middle class and yet the means to be middle class is shifting; inequality is on the increase, politics is being subsumed into oligarchy. Witness not only the role played in government by financial institutions but the move of government towards consulting not with the people but with the people’s employers. Relax, this is not turning into a left wing polemic (I accept that it’s melodramatic but stay with me), it’s simply making the point that as the influence of the middle class declines the state of democracy shifts.
    The opportunity to co-produce services and to co-create value has never been greater and yet the promise of a Big Society has become little more than a foot note and the promise of Localism has become a massive centralization of control at one end and a struggle to keep control of what remains at the other.
    An organisation that marshals its Fellows to open debate, supports them in action, inspires them through modern thinkers and publically makes a stand on the role and relevance of Arts (Artisans?), Manufacturing (wherever it sits )and Commerce has a great deal to contribute to a world of change. It will achieve this not by turning inwards and consolidating; not by being centralist and most certainly not by focusing on the past – the past will only be used as a means to maintain the status quo. So my appeal, Matthew, is to be true to the Mission, stand by the strap line and keep the commitment.

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