'The Big Society: Challenges + opportunities for membership organisations' - event report

This blog entry appears as a guest blog for 'Library & Information Update', the CILIP journal. The other night I attended an event jointly offered by the RSA and NCVO, rather interestingly titled “The Big Society:  Challenges and opportunities for membership organisations”.  The speaker list was impressive: Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive of the RSA), Dame Fiona Reynolds (Director General of the National Trust) and  Sir Stuart Etherington (Chief Executive, NCVO).  The event was a sell-out and we are told there was actually a waiting list for seats.

However, what should have been a scintillating evening of discussion was a rather dull affair which began with a carefully scripted set piece from Matthew Taylor and two rather more interesting explanations of the success of the guest organisations.  It only really arrived at the nub of the issue when the speakers were allowed to go off-script and put forward their personal points of view in response to questions from the audience.

In the end it seemed clear that there are three main requirements for The Big Society to become a reality and to provide the benefits envisaged.

Framework: Many of us think that we understand the intent of “The Big Society” and the extent to which some organisations are already well embarked on that road.  However, the single missing piece which might make the difference between success and failure is any sign of a Framework from government to indicate that they have a clear vision of how all of the pieces will fit the jigsaw of the changes upon which they have embarked.  The Framework is probably the major requirement to ensure people adopt the vision in its entirety.

Collaboration: For all membership organisations the real meaning of collaboration is clear.  It is about joining with others to share your values in order to make a difference, both internally and externally.  Increasingly though, success will be about letting go of our obsessions with our own brands and identity and working with other organisations to ensure that the message or the mission becomes the real story.  Organisations must evolve to ensure that they can continue to look outside and then to have the courage to ask if their own mission or ‘vision’ is keeping up with what is happening outside its doors.

Localisation and participation: Meaningful engagement works best when it is local.  People can care about what is important to them and may do what they can to be involved.  If organisations are not just listening but also responsive then participation becomes a relationship not an imposition.  It is essential to value all members, whatever their contribution, whether they are voluble participants or just paying their subs as an expression of their current capacity or really getting stuck in with initiatives.

For CILIP the message is also clear, this is an opportunity to be grabbed with both hands, it is time to be involved and to find a place in the forefront of enlightened organisations, to establish a real presence and to work with organisations outside of the usual suspects.  It’s branches and groups already have relationships with an enormous range of sectors and can provide the conduit for much of what is needed but it is also imperative to understand that its current borders of influence must become permeable and elastic in order to expand in a way which will prepare it for the future.

It may be useful to remember that there is no such thing as a perfect membership organisation, just one that gets it wrong less often.  Is CILIP able to look outside itself and be as flexible as it needs to be in order to flourish?

Note:  The RSA and the NCVO have undertaken a joint 'Future of Membership' project. Some useful material is emerging from it – see the RSA page about the Future of Membership project. and NCVO  Future Focus: What will membership be like in 5 years' time? – a workbook looking at 6 drivers for change, strategic opportunities and challenges.