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Live blog: RSA Fellows’ Council meets

RSA HQ, John Adam Street

Originally uploaded by Grievous Angel

Last July the RSA held elections for a brand new Fellowship Council – the work of this council should mark a change in the RSA’s history. The RSA has around 27,000 Fellows worldwide and a central aim of the council is to form a conduit of communication between the Fellowship and the people who actually run the RSA on a day to day basis (ie the board of trustees, CEO Matthew Taylor and all the full-time staff).

It’s a grey Wednesday afternoon in October and the inaugural meeting of the new council has just begun. Most people have got the train or flown in from various parts of the UK this morning. We’ve been fed a nice lunch of beef bourguignon and butternut squash pasta, and had a bit of a chat, and everyone (I spoke to at least) seems very up for this idea and keen to get going.

14:30 Nearly all the newly-elected council members are here (around 35 people or so), plus key members of RSA staff, plus of course, Matthew Taylor, who is speaking at the moment. Taylor is talking about the ways in which the RSA has been trying to open up the organisation: projects like OpenRSA, RSANetworks etc (I’ll put in links to these later).
14:47 Debate about the nature of civic activism. Taylor gives example of “Opening Minds” – an initiative of the RSA now being taught in schools, but says it’s a shame that few RSA fellows are aware of this (especially if it’s their local school). RSA wants to give people support individually for the stuff they want to do in the community.
14:50 Stephen Coleman (Yorkshire) We tell everybody come and join get involved and then we bore them to death as soon as they walk in the door…we need to address this repeated failure to engage people.
Unknown (Scottish lady): We have to remember it’s a global network we’re dealing with (The RSA)
Dave Clarke: Online tools are a great way to engage fellows. It’s important to keep looking at the forest and not the trees
Taylor: The RSA is fundamentally about enhancing human capability: more engaged, more self-reliant and more altruistic – that’s fundamentally what we’re about
Ken: Matthew, you’ve said various things and honestly, you can’t deliver them – I think you’re raising expectations that the house can give help – it can’t! You’ve said there’s £100,000 venture capital available. It’s not venture capital. It’s seed capital. Don’t make promises you can’t deliver. You should be telling Fellows to set up their own activities, to do it themselves. We set up something called Shoot the banker – but no bankers turned up.
Taylor: I think it’s a false dichotomy. If people turn up here with good ideas we’d like to support them. Can we do an article in the journal? Can we film that event? Can we add a bit of money? Are there other fellows who are expert in this area that can help? Belinda can go through the list of fellows and find ones who can help you.
John Bale: reputational risk is a problem. We were right to sponsor one academy rather than many. It’s best to have one or two exemplar type projects in many diffierent categories.
Gerard: I don’t think failure is always a bad thing. We need bold endeavour.
Outgoing chair: The place is littered with RSA projects which didn’t succeed.
Matthew: The first three attempts to organise a Great Exhibition foundered. The fourth succeeded. You learn from your mistakes.

15:00 Man from Scotland: We need to look at communications and share best practice.
Lopa Patel: I’ve never spent an afternoon just talking about social change with like-minded individuals. But social change has to come from ground up and we need to make sure that we are representative.
15:05 We are becoming more representative: younger, more women. it is slowly happening.
Long-haired man: Where should the RSA be in five years time? We’d like to be able to say there’s an engaged fellowship and a real potential to exercise social change. This council could be an absolutely pivotal point in the history of the RSA. The council is here to build bridges – if we build bridges, the resources will be there for the things we want to do.
Anne: We need to find out what else is going on that can tie into the fellowship council.
Matthew: we’re carrying out various bits of research that will be fed back to you. At the moment it feels like it’s only meetings but that’s because we didn’t want to overwhelm you. We found groups of fellows who were acting together had hidden because they didn’t want the regional committees to close them down!
Rosie Ferguson: it seems to me that we need to be really clear about what’s on offer. All the talk is about groups of fellows coming together but how about fellows inspiring non-fellows? if so, that needs to be made more explicit. Don’t spend too much money in mapping and organising social change. Put resources into doing and enabling rather than organising.
15:10 Matthew: The govt had a ‘new deal for new communities’ programme but activism from community actually went down in the areas where this programme was implemented – so yes, I agree. All our fellows, because they’re fellows, are doing things, they’re already connected to the world. We’re not here for people to take their pet idea and push it through. It has to be a collaborative progress. This council is going to be an intellectually demanding process.
15:15 break for tea

15:35 back from tea break
Belinda Lester: talks about the Exhibition: a graphic illustration of the RSA’s draft Fellowship Charter. It looks very beautiful and detailed but I haven’t had the chance to have a look at it yet. One of the jobs of our council is to finalise this charter (from what I understand it’s so far all been put together by fellows). Three main elements: to inspire, to support and to enable. The exhibition itself will change over time, but the three main elements will remain the same.
Long-haired man: you need to look at the text in context of the international fellowship.
Bob (Scotland): I look at documents like this and I say ‘so what’? We need to think of ways of strengthening it. How do we make this ‘real’?
Andy Gibson: I think two of the areas of work could be almagamated – they’re the same thing. Also, what’s the difference between ‘support’ and ‘enable’? I think just ‘inspire’ and ‘enable’ is really strong.
Laura: Enable was meant to be a practical toolkit
Andy: Maybe connect a better word
15:45 Kevin: How come the fellowship charter is already in draft form? This is the first I’ve heard of it! A lot of fellows haven’t been involved. Why was there no letter? We’re going to do a new charter etc. How does this charter fit in with the RSA’s Royal Charter?
Man in pink shirt and stripey tie: Isn’t empower a better word than enable? Building social capital needs to be represented. It’s very London centric.
John Bale: people are from very broad range of backgrounds but have a common commitment to these three goals. We must be careful not to raise expectations.
Andrew: I like it. I like the three words. I think very often you have an over strong message. I think this sets expectations perfectly.
Frances: I like the fact its not a set text page, there is creativity, there’s movement…but I think it’s a shame there’s not the global dimension there. Congratulations for doing something different.
Zena: I think the exhibition is beautiful. But there is a perception of the loftiness of the RSA – but no reflection of the society that we are trying to change. It’s very much about ‘us’.
Lopa: There’s a few things missing for me. The word ‘action’ for example. It would be good to see a timeline. We’ve got the street view and above, but what about the basement view? Children down coalmines, people working in their garages, basements etc?
Gerry: we don’t want to create a whole load of structures, bureaucracy as I said earlier.
Belinda: I want to spend a good 20 mins in our groups chatting about what’s possible. What is it that we can unlock? What are the practical actions we can take? How can we help fellows talk to each other? How can we evolve the fellows charter?
Matthew: this is an enormous organisational change for us.
1600: group discussion

16:30 Feedback: Big themes of group discussions included: how to get grassroots projects off the ground in local communities, how to identify great projects, how to simply structure and application processes (RSA has pot of money it distributes every year – a chunk of this is traditionally allocated to regional committees but this is now being questioned as it’s not always clear where money goes) and how to deal with obstructive fellows (eg a member of regional committee who refuses to work with a project that hasn’t come through his/her committee), also communication between fellows is key and one point (made by Andy Gibson) that we should have some kind of ‘parish newsletter’ for Fellows Council so we all connect better between meetings. Rosie Ferguson points out that RSA seems quite elitist and on the illustration of the RSA fellowship charter there is no ‘door in’ to the organisation.

16:45 Belinda and Matthew say thanks. Now we get a 15 min break before AGM starts at 5pm.

Nice ideas to come out of discussion include ‘bring a friend’ events where fellows always try to introduce a potential fellow to the RSA when they come to events