Exploring the future of membership

I’m delighted that NCVO and RSA have come up with a way to explore the future of membership organisations in a world where people may feel that paying subscriptions isn’t always worthwhile if they can easily get information, advice and connections online.

It’s an issue that Simon Berry and I started to pursue with others through The Membership Project, with initial RSA and NCVO support. We generated a lot of discussion, but found it difficult to follow through without more funding. We were both interested in working on specific practical projects, and our partners were more interested in a research-led programme.

That’s now come to fruition with a consortium approach under which 20 organisations are invited each to contribute £5000. Megan Griffith Gray writes:

Involving people in supporting and creating social change is a central tool for charities in the 21st century. Given the scale and nature of the social challenges facing charity leaders today, such as global security, climate change and creating equitable and sustainable food systems, we need to be able to make the most of people’s desire to come together to change the world. And in a difficult funding context, the financial and volunteering support that members bring becomes increasingly important.

Megan adds:

By working together we can address collectively these strategic issues on a larger scale than would otherwise be possible, share our expertise and lead debate across civil society about how we can rise to the challenges ahead of us.

… and then explains that consortium members will get a range of benefits, including being invited to join a Think Tank, scenario planning and other events, with dinners for the chief executives.

My initial thought was that it would be better as a more open initiative … not least because in order to understand the changes that social media may bring it is important to explore and learn first hand. Receiving research reports on what is happening “out there” isn’t enough.

However, I know Megan and the Third Sector Foresight team at NCVO are well aware of that from their past work in the field, and I should think they’ll offer opportunities to the consortium members once everyone has got settled in.

If you spend most of your time in the fairly open, collaborative social media field, as I do at the moment, it is easy to forget the institutional realities of the nonprofit world. It is a pretty competitive place, and I can understand organisations wanting to ensure any money they spend appears to give them some clear advantage. If some of us believe a different approach is better, I guess we need to come up with some convincing arguments, or see if another group of organisations would like to try an open approach in parallel.

I’m working on a couple of projects with organisations at present who might be interested in that, and know of some others, so we might be able to promote some early exchanges of thinking. Consortium members would, of course, be welcome to join in to. I suspect there is no one right way of exploring these issues … just try a number and see what works.

One other thought … when I interviewed Clay Shirky recently he suggested that best way to explore social change and social media was to look for stories about what hasn’t worked as a route into what might. I like the idea of an (escaping from) worst practices consortium.


  • December 5, 2008 - 10:44 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the mention David. I’m really excited about the project, and about the opportunities to link up with all the great work you’re doing. I totally agree that there are different ways of exploring these issues and exchanging thinking between different approaches should add to all of our ideas. I’m looking forward to hopefully being able to spend some time in the social media world again as well, after a period away…

  • December 8, 2008 - 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the supportive comment, David, I’m glad you like the way it’s shaping up.

    Since ‘openness’ is one of the questions we will doubtless be exploring – as one that I know from experience affects membership organisations with a duty to both members and the wider public – it will be really good to build in the work you’re doing with other organisations. I think a concertina approach of narrow discussion then broadening out before drawing back in to refine could work really well in this case.

    The consortium as a place to share best as well as worst practice is definitely something we’d like to look at – and the RSA will be taking an active part in this, making use in particular of the lessons learned in the Networks journey! This way, we will deifnitely all be exploring and learning first hand, and hopefully beginning to test out our assumptions in practice.

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