In the consumer society we live in, the concept of membership has – like almost everything – become reduced too often to a commodity transaction. From cultural organisations to environmental charities, people don’t become members so much as buy memberships. Their decisions are more prompted by material self-interest based on the value for money of the benefits on offer than by any investment of meaning or identity. They don’t really care that much, and certainly don’t want to get more deeply involved, as anyone can tell by the dwindling numbers of the same old faces turning up at Annual General Meetings every year. As such, membership organisations with any sense are best advised to broker partnership deals that “service” their members, maximise the revenue they earn, and use that to fund the rest of the organisation to get on with the work, maybe publishing the occasional update in the members’ magazine.
This may be the conventional wisdom: but is this really what we want from membership organisations?
At the New Citizenship Project, we don’t think so. Because we see people fundamentally as Citizens not just Consumers, we see a different explanation; we also see a whole world of opportunity open to membership organisations prepared to embrace that different explanation, and indeed a duty on them to do so.
We see membership differently in two ways.
First, the rising emphasis many membership organisations perceive on value for money and transactional benefits is in our view a rising emphasis on the value exchange, a much broader concept. What people seek as members is not just direct return on investment of money as individuals but return on investment of time, energy and money as members of society. Our view is that people want their involvement, whatever form that takes, to make an impact on the world. If it can be shown that it does, they tend to provide it – and this actually often means more involvement is required, because then we tend to see more of the impact.
Second, where others see declining participation per se, we see a decline in the old means of participation. It may well be true that fewer people are attending AGMs and the like, but it is not true that fewer people are getting involved in society. In fact, in our digital era, more and more people are getting involved, because the means of doing so are proliferating; it’s just that it’s not always noticed because organisations often aren’t looking in the right place, or offering the kinds of opportunities people now want to take up.
Starting in October 2015, we put this hypothesis at the heart of a pioneering collaborative innovation project, bringing together six leading membership organisations to explore and experiment with what we have come to call Participatory Membership.
What we found, through the energy of our participants, was full endorsement of our thinking. Refocusing some of the internal energy usually invested in driving traffic to low involvement actions, Amnesty UK created new volunteer roles like Regional Media Support Officers to harness the external energy of their supporter base, with phenomenal success. Reframing their membership communications to recognise the importance of their cause in championing the role of art in society (not just sell exhibition tickets), Tate are seeing signs of immediate rewards in retention and loyalty. Embracing the idea that everyone who comes through their doors is a potential supporter of their cause in fighting homelessness, not just someone out on a corporate jolly, the House of St Barnabas are creating a new digital House Access Card and a whole new layer of membership as a result.
In the course of the project, we looked out into the world as well, and found fascinating examples of Participatory Membership emerging in every sector – from news, where brands like De Correspondent and the Guardian are moving beyond the stark distinction between journalists and readers to a world where members play an active and constructive role in each inquiry, to culture, where the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is pioneering a new form of increasingly member-led ‘Local’ membership which is much more about putting art in service of bringing people together than driving traffic to the gallery.
At a time when division and isolation seem increasingly powerful forces in our society, this is a hopeful trend, but also a call to arms for those who work in membership. When these organisations pander to us as Consumers, they are not following business sense (though they may think they are); but what they certainly are doing is pandering to and validating the worst of who we are. By reclaiming membership as a relationship rooted in shared purpose, such organisations will not only be acting wisely in their own self interest; they will also be helping to rebuild the foundations of a more coherent, relational society. That’s a club I’d like to join.
The New Citizenship Project have today published the outputs of The Future Of Membership: A Collaborative Innovation Project, in partnership with Amnesty International, House of St Barnabas, NASUWT, NUS, Soil Association and Tate. The full report, including a set of tools to help organisations embrace Participatory Membership, is available at www.thefutureofmembership.info. A one day bootcamp sharing the findings in more detail is now booking.