The RSA- awakening the sleeping Fellowship giant

   An excellent example from the RSA Animate series


About 5 years ago a friend at the Civil Service invited me to join the RSA – an acronym which nowadays unfolds to the rather less pithy ‘The Royal Society for the promotion of arts, manufacturing and commerce’ – a membership organization with a glittering history dedicated to improving society through social policy and action, including:-

  • A formidable programme of talks and lectures, available online here, including the trailblazing RSA Animate series;
  • An Academy, putting theory into educational practice;
  • Fascinating hands-on research and social action projects;
  • A smashing central London space, currently undergoing a massive refit.

All of this is part-funded by its 27,000 Fellowship base, who in turn drive their own activity and networks in support of the Society’s aims. Although subject to a nomination and approval process, anyone can become a Fellow (and do get in touch if you’re interested).

Amazing, right?

Well, nearly.

In the five years since I joined, I’ve experienced the RSA treading a slightly confusing and hard-to-navigate path between its many identities; part-think tank, part social action hub, part membership organisation. The work it does is brilliant and the RSA’s officers are excellent, and I’ve enjoyed the talks (particularly the RSA Animate series), been to few meetings of the RSA social enterprise network, and spent plenty of time meeting Fellows and the central team at RSA House – but I feel that all of this great stuff does obscure the fact that a more effective relationship with and between Fellows would enable the Society to make an even bigger difference to the UK and the world.

It’s not just me saying this. When I was getting together the nominations to run for the Fellowship Council* I was disappointed to find that a number of friends had recently resigned their Fellowship- saying that as all of the things they valued the RSA for were offered for free to anyone and it wasn’t clear what else the organisation offered its Fellows, why would they pay the approx £100 annual subscription?

And they had a point.

While being part of the RSA Fellowship is not quite the same as buying a private product or service (i.e. Fellows’ subscriptions subsidise the Society’s general work, including making things like the RSA lectures available for free), my worry is that the message of the RSA is either not clearly defined or is not getting through, meaning that it’s not achieving its mission as magnificently as it might.

For me, the RSA is a great example of the huge opportunities, and the equally intimidating challenges, in getting people behind social organisations. I don’t want to be one of those people who extolls the virtue of private over public in all spheres, but as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, many private companies would kill to have as many ‘fans’ as the RSA has amassed and would be bolder in prompting them to act in support of their brand or product. Again, this is not to denigrate what the current team is doing, or to say that this is easy. It’s hard. But it’s such a great possibility.

And if you think that this is all a bit parochial, stop to think about how valuable a 27,000-strong user base would be to a social startup seeking to build a following behind its mission. There are, put simply, so many social startups doing great work for whom the RSA Fellowship could be a transformational friend.

So, here’s what I’d do to try and awaken this sleeping giant. I freely admit that these may already be on someone’s to-do list at RSA House – but from the point of view of a relatively active Fellow, if that is the case, the message hasn’t yet got through:-

  1. Use existing web platforms to personalise the RSA’s offer to Fellows, starting with new Fellows, and using data from other social networks better. Private companies draw on their user’s existing consumption habits (indeed, Facebook’s entire commercial strategy seems to be driven off opening up its users ‘likes’ to interested brands). We need to understand better what Fellows want from the RSA, and match them to the projects, discussions and initiatives that would deliver for them. This could also involve looking at greater integration of the online RSA Fellowship with existing platforms, including Facebook and social (like civiccrowd.org, about which I’ll be saying more soon).
  2. Give Fellows’ blogging a louder voice – In May, I wrote a short blog for RSA Comment (linked below). There was 3 weeks from submission to publication, and by the time it came out I felt pretty detatched from the article and wasn’t keen to share. RSA Comment has some terrific content, but wouldn’t it be great if we let go of some of the central control and gave Fellows had a more open platform to blog (around the Society’s mission and themes of course), with the most-read/ shared/ commented stories getting prominence on the RSA social meda feed and ultimately in the RSA Journal?
  3. Crowdfund the RSA’s Fellows-led Catalyst projects to make them go further and get more Fellows behind them –  I had a go at this with WeDidThis, with mixed success but a lot of learning, and would be keen to help this happen more and better in future. I’ve blogged about at greater length here.
  4. Increase opportunities for Fellows to drive Projects led by the central team – there’s a wealth of talent and experience in the Fellowship, which could be much more directly employed to drive forward RSA Projects. As a starter (and apologies if this is happening already but I haven’t yet seen it) why not invite Fellows to sit on the boards of each Project strand (subject to interview, and matching their skills and expertise with the project of course)?
  5. Set some public, accountable targets for Fellow engagement  – you know the ’50 people are talking about this’ that you see on every Facebook fan page? Well, it’d be great to have something just as open to drive the RSA’s engagement with and between the Fellowship – how many new Fellows do we want, and what are our targets for their involvement?

As you can see, I’m writing for both RSA Fellows and non-Fellows- I’d really welcome comments from both. If you’re a Fellow already, what do you reckon – does this make sense, or am I barking up a set of wrong trees? If you’re not, what do you think about the RSA – would you join?

* My candidate statement’s here – have a look, and if you’re already a Fellow, please vote for me!
To give you an example of the work funded by the Catalyst fund, here’s a project that was part-funded through my old site WeDidThis.org.uk and Catalyst. We need more of this!
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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The RSA- awakening the sleeping Fellowship giant

  1. Hi Ed. Some really interesting points in there. I think all member organisations are having to rethink what membership means in the current climate. With the growth in digital technologies, building an online aspect of the membership is fundamental.

    I have been involved in the Institute of Directors for the past 5 years and they and other organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses all face the same issue about what ‘value’ is perceived for the membership.

    People join membership organisations for different reasons. Some join simply for the use of John Adam Street. Other join for the networking and values The RSA stand for.

    I agree the fellowship council needs to drive the voice of the fellowship and engage fellows. The change needs to be led by fellows and the team at John Adam Street need to enable and empower the fellowship.

  2. Thanks Ed – your analysis chimes very much with the piece I blogged over here http://rsafellowship.com/profiles/blogs/why-be-an-rsa-fellow-and-how-to-make-the-best-of-it-five-bottles – and goes much further in promoting some practical solutions. You have my vote!

  3. christina

    Ed Hi,
    How wonderful to be able to speak to a member at last! I’m wondering if you could also forward this to Barbara Anderson as well?
    I’ve made many attempts and mhad many fruitless “communications with the fellowship team or HAL as I prefer to call the computer. I ‘ve been hugely disapointing in joining, and have givn up attempting to add a comment or in any way get in touch. I don’t find a hypelink very useful as an answer. Going to see if this works. Best wishes, Christina new mebmber

    • Ed Whiting

      Hi Christina- thanks very much for getting in touch! I’ll certainly pass on your details to Barbara. I’m sorry the experience of being a Fellow hasn’t quite delivered for you yet- let’s see if we can change that though…

  4. christina

    Oops, sorry about the typos,I thought I might get refused here too!.

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