THE FUTURE OF MEMBERSHIP
THE THREE PRINCIPLES OF PARTICIPATORY MEMBERSHIP
When business models become the end not the means.
When we think of our members and the wider public as Consumers, we think of them as people “we” - as an organisation which is distinct from “them” - need to sell to and serve. This tends to manifest in a focus on benefits and on transactional value for money. The problems start when the targets we set for this way of working come to obscure the purpose as the ultimate target of the organisation. We risk standing between people and purpose, almost guarding it from them (or vice versa); at worst, we silo ourselves around the demands of this business model and ultimately lose sight of each other, our members, and our purpose.
Purpose as the invisible leader.
When we think of our members and the public as Citizens, we have to start from a different place, asking what the purpose of our organisation is, and how we can invite them into that purpose - and we have to enable everyone in the organisation to think like this. This puts purpose at the heart, and reminds us that everyone - including members and the public - can be part of that purpose. We may still do many of the same things, but we do so with a clear idea of the purpose as the higher reason for it, and of the shared endeavour they represent.
THE KEY CHALLENGE:
Purpose is often easy to talk about, but very hard to maintain focus on. Fulfilment of purpose is harder (but never impossible) to make objective and measurable, especially compared to acquisition or retention numbers. When it comes to prioritising time, the space we fundamentally need to create for purpose can easily be perceived as a nice-to-have.
"The critical moment for us was realising that this is not about choosing between a transactional focus on benefits on the one hand and altruism on the other, but instead recognising that true value for money has both transactional and emotional components. The free pass to exhibitions must remain the foundation of the Tate membership proposition, but the framing fundamentally shifts. If Tate is about championing the importance of art, then membership (and visiting) is about buying into that importance - not just buying a ticket. This has directly affected key membership levers, but also many other aspects of the organisation, including how visitor-facing staff are encouraged to feel ownership of their opportunity to help people feel closer to art and to Tate."
THE HOUSE OF ST BARNABAS
"Our challenge was to broaden the organisational mindset to be reflective of our purpose and to ensure that we didn't move to a transactional way of doing and communicating in response to our growth strategy. We recognise that members of the House invest their values as much as their money, and if membership is an investment not a purchase, we must always remember our members are more than their money. So in order to grow our membership we started to think about mattering to people not just marketing to them. But as the work continued, and we realised the importance of every aspect of the organisation embodying purpose - even the parts you might have thought could be nakedly commercial - our key realisation was that it’s not just the purpose, it’s the power of teams understanding their role in the purpose. This was a really important realisation that work needed to be done to reframe internal teams’ perceptions and evaluation metrics around the balance of profit and purpose to make sure we could all really stay true to what we’re here for."
Consultation or referendum.
Many membership organisations tell they do involve their members, primarily through feedback or accountability mechanisms (from surveys to Annual General Meetings), but fundamentally it is the staff of the organisation who do the delivery, while members watch on from the sidelines. At the other extreme, sometimes when ‘participation’ is sought, it is done through blunt mechanics like ill-supported referenda. And when members don’t get involved in these, or the opportunity is colonised by a group of hardcore activists who we know don’t represent the broader membership, we tell ourselves that this is evidence people don’t really want to participate at all.
When we think of members as participants in purpose, we make possible a genuinely open and upstream conversation about how they can most effectively play that role, and how our organisations can provide the best platform for them to do so. At best, these are conversations at the stage of meaningful input rather than consultations to rubber-stamp output. This is a model which can lead to a huge number of creative possibilities, but it requires significant facilitation skills to be effective - and it will mean empowering the staff who are closest to the membership to open up the conversation, not honing strategies down to the finest detail in ivory towers before any involvement is sought.
THE KEY CHALLENGE:
Partly because it is too easily misunderstood as handing over the keys, rather than as creating a shared platform based on shared purpose, talk of this way of working can create significant fear - particularly in governance structures, often populated by those who have earned their stripes in a different era; and in the core expert functions, who can feel their expertise and thus their value in the organisation is being undermined.
T"he key shift for us at NUS was fundamentally about moving from working for members to working with members - both at the level of the unions and the individual students. This helped reframe ways of working, so the focus was on creating the platform, context, and tools to work together with members and each be clear on roles in that collaboration. As a result, and using the development process of our new organisational strategy as the testbed, we experimented with different techniques for engagement both online and face-to-face - and as a result are confident that we have created an agenda which will be owned by everyone, not just a few."
"At Amnesty, we describe ourselves explicitly as “a movement of ordinary people”; in other words, Amnesty IS its members - some of us just happen to be paid salaries. A big moment for us came in recognising that truly to fulfil this sort of approach needs some very different structures and processes; not just internal mantras. It’s about going to people, recognising their skills and connections and asking for their ideas, not just sending an email and asking them to click / ‘take action’. Platform not delivery is easy to say, but the gravity of normal ways of working is strong. Some structures, mindsets and practices are embedded and hard to shift, but the project has helped us test some of our thinking. We’ve created new volunteer roles based on a collaborative model: Regional Media Support Officers – members with journalism and media skills working alongside our Media staff team to increase regional and local media coverage - have been particularly successful."
Always in planning.
The great hazard of the Plan-Do-Review mentality is that it places far too much emphasis on the plan. Too many organisations spend too much time and too much money developing and refining strategies in too much detail, a process which becomes self-reinforcing as the amount of time invested puts increasing pressure on the output. The strategy that emerges inevitably doesn’t match up in reality, at worst triggering a strategy review which means the process starts all over again.
Always in beta.
This agenda represents a fundamentally new way of working, with ideas coming from a far greater range of sources and in far greater numbers. No one can know exactly how it will shape your organisation, and often the best ideas do not seem like it at first, but if you can create a culture where you very quickly get to the stage of testing them out in reality, you have a chance of getting there. Ultimately, this is about creating a culture of experimentation and continual learning, which at its best is a hugely motivating environment to be part of.
THE KEY CHALLENGE:
Reducing the risk.
Lengthy strategy processes have become a major crutch for organisations, particularly those rooted in membership. This is because there is a completely appropriate desire to ensure resources that come from members are responsibly used. But this instinct closes down the space for the ideas that will actually build resilience. The risk of experimenting is lower than the risk of not experimenting.
THE SOIL ASSOCIATION
"A key moment for us as the Soil Association came during a group exercise exploring “rapid iteration”. This deceptively simple approach, cutting, pasting and discussing an existing piece of communication, unleashed a huge amount of insight and energy - and developing this understanding has become our key priority. We’ve taken this out to our broader way of working: it is all about creating the space to do things differently without having to change everything all at once. This way of working reflects an understanding of how interconnected all the aspects of what we do is, and encourages and enables collaboration and action - we still have a lot to learn but we feel really positive that this is unearthing the potential of our people and increasing our effectiveness dramatically".
"Like all unions, NASUWT is a fundamentally democratic organisation, and always has been. This is clearly a real strength, but can sometimes feel at odds with the need to prototype and experiment, since it risks meaning that change must be debated so much before being implemented that it can restrict the adaptability of the organisation. Our key moment was recognising this tension, and starting to experiment with different ways to invite lighter touch participation, but often earlier in our processes. Everyone in the organisation, members and staff, knows we need to be able to move faster, and we’re making real progress now."