Reinventing membership

I've just been invited to become a fellow of the RSA, and the work I've been doing with them on reinventing their fellowship networks, combined with some very stimulating ideas from David Wilcox, has got me thinking again about the concept of membership. David's point is an important one: in an increasingly networked and interconnected society, membership organisations must transform themselves if they are to continue to add value to their members. The big question now is how will they need to change? When it is increasingly simple (and usually free) to join new communities and connect with like-minded people, which aspects of existing membership offerings will remain valuable, and which are becoming rapidly out of date?

Clearly the thing which has lost much of its value is access to people. Once upon a time you might pay for membership of a club to meet the people therein. Now, you meet the people first, and then consider joining. In the case of the RSA, I know many of the fellowship already, and I'm active in many of the networks discussions, so the incentive for joining seems somewhat muted. The current question that's vexing us about the RSA Networks platform is how open it should be to non-fellows: if non-fellows can join in, then how are we adding value to fellowship? But if only fellows can join the discussions, can innovation thrive in a closed network?

I like lists, so I thought I would propose the following reasons for joining a (paid-for) membership 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?

There are the beginnings of a very interesting debate here. David has a compementary list on his blog, and check out the comments for follow-up posts and discussions too, as well as in the RSA fellowship networks too. I hope all these locations will provide a useful space for working out some of this stuff.

In the meantime, I shall of course also be considering the RSA's very kind invitation. But as I consider "what's in it for me" in joining the RSA, I'm also noticing how much of me is already "in it". I know many of the fellows, I attend their events, I know many of the staff - and that sense of openness makes me feel much more like joining than if the doors were closed to me. Perhaps this could be an interesting social experiment - I'll let you know how I get on.