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Spread the news, we’re getting engaged

May 22, 2012 by
Filed under: The RSA, Uncategorized 

I promise if you read this post to the end I will make it worth your while…

A few weeks ago I read a very interesting report by Chris Denton of the Chartered Institute of Marketing. Structured interviews with senior directors of 44 professional associations revealed a number of key findings, many of them quite challenging. Many associations were, variously, suffering declining membership, finding it hard to hold on to commercial income and struggling to be as influential as they wished. But the section which caught my eye was on ‘the constitutional challenge’. It contained the following paragraph:

‘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’

As Fellows know, we have had our fair share of governance issues here at the RSA and so it is great to report a really positive meeting today of our Fellowship Council, a body which is becoming more confident, cohesive and influential. The Council and its many working groups sit at the apex of a huge and growing web of Fellow engagement in the work of the Society stretching from staff support for Fellows’ Catalyst bids, to FRSAs on the governing boards of our Academy schools, to Fellows engagement in change processes including reform of the RSA regions and the development of a new IT strategy.

Standing back from all this and knowing many other membership organisations would like to learn from our experience, some key messages emerge.

Balance determination and patience

There are lots of barriers to greater member engagement (both from the organisation and also from Fellows with a more traditional model of activism) so a change of practices, expectations and culture takes a long time.  I thought at the outset we could simply open the door and hundreds or Fellows would rush enthusiastically through. But I was unrealistic both about the organisation’s capacity to change and the Fellows’ response to suddenly being offered new opportunities.

Engagement has to be a mission for the whole organisation.

It seems now that hardly a conversation takes place in the RSA without colleagues asking how we can get Fellows involved and draw on their skills. But because the benefits were clearer to staff in the Fellowship team than the rest of the organisation it has taken time and careful consideration of capacities and incentives to embed engagement as a truly corporate goal. Yet, it is only when recognition of the value of Fellowship engagement becomes ubiquitous that the potential starts to get realised.

Focus on the positives

Along the journey (which is far from complete) there have been many Fellows who have been unsure of our direction and some who have been openly hostile. Having a thin skin I have sometimes let myself get too focused on people who will probably never be happy (not, that is, unless I fall under the wheels of the Number 11 bus). In the end it is nearly always a better use of energy to support and encourage the positive people than spend fruitless hours trying to change the minds of the committed cynics.

Invest to reap

Engagement doesn’t come cheap. Whether it’s the Catalyst fund, network managers or new Fellows evenings (we had a great one last night), over the last four years the RSA has substantially increased the money is spends directly on supporting Fellows’ activities (by about five fold, albeit from a low base).  This has had knock on effects – so for example our Projects team now has to raise the lion’s share of its funds from external sources.  But this isn’t just throwing money at a problem. I have always believed in the end we would achieve the ultimate aim: Fellows at the heart of delivering the Society’s charitable mission. As we see Catalyst winners get substantial third party investment, more Fellows approach us with leads for projects and funding and increasing evidence that it is Fellowship engagement which is a key part of the distinctiveness and impact of our work, this belief is starting to be validated.

There are many other lessons and – as I say – we have a lot further to go. But it feels like our big experiment is generating evidence which should offer other organisations the confidence to take engagement seriously.

So, if you’ve got this far thank you. As promised, the reward: Today sees the launch of a new and wonderful RSA Animate, which by happy coincidence is not unrelated to themes in this post.

Here it is.




  • Martin Gilbraith FRSA

    Congratulations on your engagement, this is great progress!

  • Edward Harkins FRSA

    I got to the end and claimed my reward – it was worth it! I don’t know that the parts were news to me. However, the coherent and accessible oral canter (aided by the visuals) through the long march of progressive thinking to where we are, meant that the sum of the whole was so much greater.

    An excellent piece of icing to put on this cake of a posting. Especially heartening to read about the positive developments at Council.

    From long experience I have to strongly support the view that in life in general, “In the end it is nearly always a better use of energy to support and encourage the positive people than spend fruitless hours trying to change the minds of the committed cynics.”

    After all, the committed cynics, along with the ‘no-changers’ take sustenance from any attempt to dissuade them from their beliefs. As they would have it, if you were trying to alter their belief and mindset, you must be the one in error.

    It’s already been re-tweeted!

  • David Wilcox

    Thanks Matthew for support from the top on engagement – with all the associated efforts by staff and Council.
    To complement that, in the spirit of Fellow-led initiatives, I’ve just posted Collaborating towards a more fully networked RSA which aims to summarise some discussions among the digital engagement group on how Fellows can play a bigger part in moving things forward.
    In summary: if we want a better networked RSA, with more chances to connect and benefit from its many activities, we can’t just jump to a solution. We need a Fellow-led exploration of what’s possible, some experiments, and a chance to help shape new content strategies and networking activities.
    It feels as if the time is right.

  • Graham Rawlinson

    Shifting to a paradigm of knowledge as network surely shows how limited the idea of returning to some kind of fixed O-Level standard in schools is. Assessment only makes sense if it reflects breadth and flexibility, encouraging fixed views of what is true and not true in itself breads a generation of people who are disinclined to see themselves as life long learners and innovators.

    As a possible RSA Fellows project, to represent how network thinking could be developed I can think of no better kind of mapping tool than an enabled PersonalBrain map of RSA Fellows experiences, skills and interests.
    This is James Burke showing how to explore network thinking:
    PersonalBrain is now on Version 7 so a lot more powerful.

    The Free version would allow anyone to see how the core set of connections between Fellows is represented.

    Moving into the new paradigm of course the easy benefit of hierarchy is accountability, so the RSA would have to move away from an HQ down design to an open network, is that possible? The Transition Network is one of the most successful in recent years, starting in Totnes and operating a very permissive system of cross connections, there are now Transition Streets, Towns and Cities around the world and still growing very fast. They would certainly be good fodder for a research project, not only because generally they have succeeded but because in many cases locally they have not (yet) succeeded, so who did some succeed and others not?

    Maybe there could be a parallel organisation, RSA in Transition, with the RSA permitting RSA networks to be established and not governed!

  • David Wilcox

    Thanks Graham – that’s a great connection which I hope we can develop further. Here’s some examples of network mapping by my colleague Drew Mackie (FRSA applied) using Yed.
    How can we best network:-)? Are you on
    I agree about Transition Towns Network – blog post here.
    And RSA in Transition. Yes! Or maybe an exploration towards NextRSA?

  • David Wilcox

    Graham – I add a comment with links, but it is stuck in moderation. Where can I reach you?