I'm going to spend some time this year on why we join-in activities, join-up with other people - and whether doing this online will drive big changes in civic institutions. If you've got hundreds of friends in Facebook, and plenty of other ways to learn, socialise and work online, what extra benefits do membership subscriptions bring you? There will of course continue be some benefits - but I suspect that they will need to be rethought if organisations wish to retain online members.
I started thinking about this a while back, writing:
It used to be that you joined associations because it was a way of meeting like-minded people and getting help, facilities, information and other things difficult or costly to organise for yourself. These days it is much easier to find people and resources online, and to mix and match these assets into project teams, communities of practice, and informal networks.
Last year Matthew Taylor's ambitious vision to transform the 250-year-old RSA (membership 27,000) opened up a live test-bed for these issues: past posts archived here. At the core of Matthew's plan is an online platform, RSA Networks, that could help re-mix the best of traditional membership benefits with opportunities for RSA members, known as Fellows, to collaborate online.
Fellow Fellow (couldn't resist that) Simon Berry and I are using the platform to propose a wider exploration of the future of membership:
Membership organisations and associations are fundamental to civic life - but may be bypassed as online social networking grows. This project will invite organisations - and anyone interested - to join with RSA Networks to explore practical ways to meet the challenge.
You can register on the site to see more details and discussion, and see it here on the OpenRSA wiki.
We have been joined enthusiastically by our friends on the NCVO Third Sector Foresight team, Megan Griffith and Karl Wilding, and will get together with them and RSA staff in a couple of weeks. After that we'll organise an open meeting for anyone interested, and an open site. Meanwhile Megan offers their perspective on the 3s4 site, with reminders of previous investigations on their ICT Foresight report and recent seminar. Megan writes:
Here are some initial ideas we've thrown into the mix:
* Membership has been commodified – by which we mean that membership is increasingly viewed as a good or service that we buy and dispose of, rather than as a commitment. Have membership organisations been complicit in this, trying to buy members off with an increasing array of (useless?) discounts?
* 'Direct-debit citizenship' - the flip-side of this commodification is what has been described as 'direct-debit citizenship'; the idea that you can discharge your responsibilities as a citizen by paying £10 a month.
* The ease of online networking – aspects of membership that are based around mutualism, shared knowledge and friendship, have unsurprisingly migrated online.
Over on the RSA Networks site, Michael Ward has offered a simple yet compelling way to think about people's attitudes, which I used to categorise
a list of activities and services, started by Simon:
1. People who are members for what they can get out of it for themselves
* discounted/special products and services
* special events/places
* personal learning
* kudos from membership
2. People who share benefits equally with other members
* collaborative learning
* collaborative projects
* improved social/network capital (we not just me)
3. People who wish only to benefit others
* supporting campaigns
Under 1, we could put a lot of clubs and professional associations. I think Matthew Taylor hopes that RSA will develop under 2. Category 3 includes a lot of cause-related organisations.
As part our "re-inventing member" project I expect that we will be developing this classification further, and then looking where, and in what ways, operating online will make a difference.
If you are interested, do drop in a comment here or on the RSA site. However, don't expect a rapid response, because I'm on holiday in North Cornwall without a landline, where even a phone call involves driving to the top of the hill. Makes you appreciate the value of your neighbours.
Andy Gibson, who is one of the developers working on the RSA Networks project, has added his thoughts on reinventing membership, including a list of the possible reasons for paying to join an organisation
1. Access to resources: although information is infinitely replicable, access to physical resources is just as restricted as ever. Organisations offering access to physical space, or to events and services offered within physical space, this scarcity of availability can justify the membership fee. In other words, if only a few can get in, it’s often worth paying to be one of the few.
2. Personal prestige: if membership is awarded on some basis of exclusivity or personal merit, then becoming a member can act like a personal brand, a short-hand way of evidencing your quality. Rather like a qualification, but without all the hard work. As it becomes easier to meet new people, discriminating between them becomes more important - so this sort of membership may be a growth area in the future.
3. Formalising the relationships: you get what you pay for, they say, and so if you really need certain levels of interaction with people in your networks, sometimes it’s worth paying for someone to organise them. Organisations that can provide a solid programme of activities, opportunities, ideas and connections can charge for the work they do, and in many cases this can provide excellent value for money.
4. Pledge support for a cause: this for me is the most interesting one. As my friend Paul Youlten says of social networks, “what’s in it for me, and what of me is in it?” Increasingly we seem to be paying money to support the organisations which we’ve already joined. “Members” and “supporters”, at least for charitable societies like the RSA, are becoming more and more blurred. So perhaps membership organisations can increase their value by becoming more open?
Andy says he is considering an invitation from the RSA to become a Fellow.
Our partners RSA and NCVO are providing some funding for us to develop an open process to design the project, and pitch for more investment. More soon on that. This is going to be a good one!
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