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Coming clean about membership (archive link)

RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor reflects on discussions about membership organisations at an NCVO conference.

Yesterday afternoon saw me in the City leading an NCVO seminar on the future of membership organisations. (I arrived late and, given the name of the venue and the use of blogging and twittering in the seminar, was open to the accusation ‘Taylor couldn’t organise a mash up in The Brewery’.)

From what was a lively session – part of an NCVO/RSA project on membership – three points particularly struck me:

1) Organisations find it very hard to be honest about the task of managing and engaging with their membership. It was only after I was very open about how challenging this is at the RSA that other delegates started to open up. It turns out that the issues are very similar in many different types of organisations. Change involves simultaneously confronting barriers (such as activist capture, cumbersome governance and stuffy inward looking cultures), building capacity (finding new ways – particularly on-line – of engaging people) and developing new content propositions (what are we asking members to do and how can we make this an attractive and rewarding proposition).

2) Creating a new culture and set of expectations among members and in the relationship between the centre and localities can be a major, time consuming and resource intensive change management process. Many organisations lack the confidence or resources to confront the issues, so they are continually brushed under the carpet.

3) Very few new charities are creating democratic or quasi democratic membership structures. New philanthropists and social entrepreneurs have seen the hassle that can be involved and tend to plump for much leaner and more centralised forms of governance.

I have written in the past about the need for what I called ‘a new collectivism’. More than ever we need organisations that engage people not just in signing petitions or raising money but in shaping the way the organisation works and what it tries to achieve; this is practical citizenship. But the cultures of too many membership organisations are unsuited to modern expectations and challenges and can be off-putting to, for example, younger people. That’s why this NCVO/RSA project is important not just for the organisations directly involved but for the health of wider civil society.

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