members vs volunteers

I am reading the report of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering and I starting thinking about the similarities between members and volunteers, and got myself into a bit of a muddle - where does one end and the other begin? Is an active member actually a volunteer? Or does the title of membership denote a more committed position? Or perhaps just the addition of a financial committment in the form of subscription?

Now that we are asking Fellows to be more involved; to give time, ideas and support to the Networks platform and each other, it occured to me that this is more akin to volunteering than ever before, and the report might therefore have some interesting advice as to how we attract people to join the RSA and get them involved.

I am only halfway through right now, but I'll make a note of anything that catches my eye and post it later.

Members and Volunteers

It's interesting, I think some groups might prefer membership as it connotes support and ownership by those so labeled. Member supported radio, etc.

But in a way it also suggests a strange possesion of that person by the organization. These are OUR members. That exclusivity seems to be more focused on who we can capture and mange. It's a strange dynamic. To what extent is our work about supporting people, citizens trying to create impact in areas of great need and how much is our need (rightfully or otherwise) to be able to capture, count and mobilize them to support OUR work.

That's really interesting.

That's really interesting. In the research phase we'd like to find out what membership means to organisations (as well as individuals) and it would be interesting to see how much the attitude you described is expressed.

Good question Laura! There's

Good question Laura!

There's some definitions work to be done I think so we can be clear about what we want to cover, and what we don't. Personally I think we need a fairly narrow definition so that the project can be focussed, whilst taking a broad approach to considering the driving forces.

Thoughts off the top of my head...

  • Volunteers are sometimes members, but not always
  • Members are sometimes volunteers, but not always
  • Members often pay, but not always
  • People who sign up to and are active on a 'cause' may consider themselves to be members, but probably not volunteers (which is more associated with service/unpaid work?)

I'm picturing a venn diagram with overlaps and then we can pick which bit we're most interested in - how exciting! (if you have a copy of our latest almanac, check out the amazing venn diagram map of civil society on page 90!

Megan Griffith, Research Manager, NCVO Third Sector Foresight

re: members vs volunteers

Laura - on the relationship between volunteering and membership: I think it depends on the purpose of the organisation, and why you become a member. One of those commenting on the membership project on the RSA Networks site distinguished:

  1. People who are members for what they can get out of it for themselves
  2. People who share benefits equally with other members
  3. People who wish only to benefit others

If you join a club that offers services, as in 1, you generally don't expect to volunteer. If you join a cause as in 3, then you do expect to contribute one way of another.

The RSA, for example, offers some services, and recognition through FRSA ... but are member/Fellows all agreed they fall into 2 and 3? If so Fellows will become volunteers. But if they think £130 a year is mainly for 1. then they may not. Clarifying this for any organisation is probably a mix of bottom-up engagement and top-down leadership from Trustees who are the custodians of the purpose.

So, in summary, it depends on who the organisation is for. Once that's clear, it is easier to make the proposition to potential members.

All of which makes the RSA Networks initiative such an interesting testbed for working out these issues! 

Even more fuzzy

I wonder if the RSA's vision doesn't make things even more complicated.  In one respect I am sure they are happy to remain as  subscription/member organisation for some, while for others they are encouraging volunteering in RSA projects.... but more vitally they are also encouraging and supporting members to volunteer outside of the organisation - in society more widely.

 In this way isn't the RSA embedding itself more effectively within society, rather than standing on its edge? Held together by the network of Fellows....

 When people ask me what the £130 is for I usually say 'to support the future'.

For nearly all the more charitable or interest based organisations membership as a rule includes generosity, in whatever form: support, money, time, effort, loyalty.

Thanks Laura for such an interesting discussion post! 


re: even more fuzzy

Tessy - I agree that the RSA Networks vision is really interesting: being a member (Fellow) who gets internal benefits, and who also volunteers to work outside the organisation for wider social benefit. The challenge for RSA Networks - as I see it - is  how to provide an infrastructure that supports internal benefits, and also the external work. The problem is that a lot of the off the shelf/traditional systems for support focus on the internal benefits - including web systems within a login. It means that they can only support the Fellow/volunteers ... not those they are working with.

If you shift the focus, and ask what support would be necessary for successful projects where those involved are a mix of Fellows and others in the wider community,  it become more tricky on the communications front. The options seem to me:

  1. Only support Fellows - but end up with two classes of people on projects: supported Fellows and those unsupported (by RSA)
  2. Open the RSA support systems to those involved in projects who are not Fellows - but risk other Fellows complaining about "dilution" of Fellowship, and increasing demands for system features
  3. Create a support system specifically for RSA Networks projects - but then find difficulties in linkage to other Fellowship-support systems
  4. Help Fellows to create their own communications and other tools necessary for projects

These complications are boundary issues: as soon as someone is a member, others are not members.  I'm not involve in RSA Networks these days, but as I understand it they are going for 1 plus maybe some 2. I think that for projects to work well it may be necessary to add sopme 4.

Common Space

I know that the issue of open and closed access has been one of your major concerns David, and it is a very important issue indeed. I don't feel that I have a determined view of this at this stage, but I most often find myself favouring closed at the current time, purely on the basis that the online platforms are still so new to us all and the transparency is still uncomfortable for many people.

It is also likely that there is a tension within the RSA between benefiting from Fellow's intellectual resources to give real traction to very serious projects.... and ensuring that projects are informed by all the expert help possible both in and out of the Fellowship.

I wonder ultimately it doesn't concern different stages in a project's development and perhaps in that regard your suggestion of more help setting up alternative tools, but linked, is very relevant. The pattern is often to consult within the Fellowship initially and then extend this out using Fellow's external networks as things develop. This seems extremely sensible. Thus new people are drawn into the RSA through their interest in its activity.

What I have questioned on this issue is why someone who was involved in a project working with other RSA Fellows, benefiting from the value of that support resource wouldn't want to become a Fellow if invited/nominated? If part of the benefit of membership includes creating value within the networks this is ultimately going to be very difficult to do outside of that personal commitment?

The Fellows also have to be aware that financial accountability effects these types of decisions. The balance will always be that the subscriptions of the inactive majority will be used to support the active minority and if this increasingly includes non-Fellows this becomes uncomfortable, if not impossible.

Perhaps it is simple a need to create common space for early discussions?

re: common space

Tessy - thanks. You are getting to the heart of the matter, as I see it. What are the terms of engagement that RSA/Fellows will offer to non-Fellows when they develop civic innovation projects outside the confines of the RSA. Projects must all reach that external stage if they are for social, not just RSA benefit, and are inclusive/engaging not just "done to people".

I agree of course that RSA staff and Fellows may want to develop ideas, and recruit others to an extent in private in the early stages ... though with the caveat that:

  • not invent here is the biggest stumbling block to subsequent engagement
  • it is easy to be presumptuous of people's needs if the beneficiaries (i.e. non-RSA people in this case) are not involved early in project design

Supposing a project idea has been developed within RSA to the point that Fellows wish to engage others. What's the proposition? What skills, resources, support will be available from Fellows and staff that are not available elsewhere? And what are the conditions?

I agree people may wish to join RSA if they see it as a vibrant and supportive place ... but should it be a condition of project support? I think that would be very divisive. It is marketing and recruitment, not civic innovation, and I think people would sniff that very quickly.

What's needed, in my view, is some serious "paper prototyping" of project processes, followed by real testing. I argued unsuccessfully for that within RSA, but didn't get anywhere ... which was one reason for leaving! I just couldn't see how RSA Networks would actually work in practice.

Behind all this are, I believe, profound issues of what's the best way to undertake social innovation. After working in community engagement, civic partnerships, social media etc as a consultant for many years I've come to the view that open, collaborative processes are best. I don't think you can trust well-resourced, well-meaning groups of people (aided by consultants) to avoid being presumptous about what "they" need, and then ending up doing things to them, for them, rather than with them.

I know this absolutely is not what RSA staff and Fellows have in mind. But unless the issues are worked through, as well as talked about, it is an easy position to slip into. The first issue for any power holder to address, I think, is "who is this for - and how much involvement will we offer". By definition civic innovation is for people mainly outside RSA, and those wider interests should play a big part in project design and development. If that principle is agreed, then it is important to design back from the external terms of engagement, not just forward from institutional interest.

Thanks again Tessy for promoting this discussion in the open. Although we are discussing RSA as an example - because it is in the lead - the issues apply to any organisation aiming to do good stuff with new stuff.

Human Energy

Your points about creating projects to 'bestow' on others are very important.  I couldn't agree with you more on that.  A great many RSA projects are research based and these often inform the projects.  Where I think your open/closed argument is most valid is regarding Fellows who are 'social innovators' by profession, and to some degree they are looking for something fairly substantial through Fellowship, including possible financial support.  This could be via a third party.  It seems that this is possibly the area where the Fellow/Non Fellow, open/closed question becomes the most complicated?

Although the Third Sector is growing, I think that the RSA needs to be a bit cautious about opening the online platform widely at these early stages.  If they are valuing all the Fellow's capacities, which I believe they are, they need to ensure that Fellows are invited to participate in a safe space. At a Regional Dinner a couple of weeks ago I met a new Fellow aged 75.  He is an eco activist and farmer whose experience and determination are making him an effective social force.  He was going to get his assistant to talk him through how to use the Network's site.   

I liked how Daniel Taylor described change: "Change happens because of how we invest our human energy, and it always has since we came down from the trees.  Everyone's got a margin of discretionary energy - ten percent, twenty percent - that isn't used up making their way in the world.  That's the energy that's available for social change." 

In my view the RSA needs to inspire and guide those Fellows who want to participate with their 10-20%, but don't know how, as much as it needs to support those Fellows who are leading figures in social innovation.  

 Doesn't this lead back to Laura's point about volunteering time - in the RSA's case giving that time to developing RSA projects, and/or giving time to co-creating social projects 'out there'?