Do members add value for civic societies?


Let me be provocative (again)…..

Members, eh? Who needs ’em? No, seriously, who really needs members?

If you’ve read my article on how we can measure the success of a civic society, you’ll know that I have questioned the idea that membership numbers should be used as an indicator of a successful civic society: we tend to think that the more members a society has, the more successful it must be and most if not all civic societies probably spend some time and effort in trying to recruit and retain members.

In my previous article, I posited that it is actually reputation and trust that really count: how others see you, and whether or not they trust your judgement and advice are the real markers of a successful society. If you agree with me, then the natural conclusion is that the size of membership is not really that important. In fact, dare I suggest that your members are holding you back? Let me explain.

As I said in my article, at Wakefield Civic Society we organise 30 to 40 events and activities per year, sometimes more. We do that because our members enjoy the events and, if the members are happy, they are more likely to renew their membership year after year. On top of that, a lively programme of events is a great way of attracting new members. In other words, our desire to recruit and retain members determines how we operate: we are a membership-based organisation so therefore we run events for members.

While often hugely enjoyable, these events take a good deal or work to organise and to run but only around a fifth of our membership turn out for them and sometimes attendance is even less which means we are going to a lot of trouble to put on events for a smallish subset of the membership. As well as effort, these events also cost us money – we subsidise at least some of the events we put on from our membership subscription income as part of our charitable mission. Having said that, our members (or at least those who attend) tell us that they enjoy the events and, if I’m honest, I enjoy hosting them!

However, our charitable objects as a civic society are:
(a) To encourage high standards of architecture and town planning in Wakefield.
(b) To stimulate public interest in and care for the beauty, history and character of the area of the City and its surroundings.
(c) To encourage the preservation, development and improvement of features of general public amenity or historic interest.
(d) To pursue these ends by means of meetings, exhibitions, lectures, publications, other forms of instruction and publicity, and promotion of schemes of a charitable nature.

Nowhere in the charitable objects is there any mention of our being a membership organisation (this comes later on in the Society’s constitution) and we could arguably deliver our charitable objects without the need to recruit lots of members. All we really need is enough people to form a committee.

What I’m getting at here is that the society could meet its charitable purposes with just a handful of really committed people serving as a sort of ‘think tank’. Say we had around ten people willing to serve. They would need a mix of skills and local knowledge, including some experience of design, planning and architecture but, with the right mix, they could review planning applications, offer advice, write position papers and even organise the occasional public event, exhibition or lecture.

They would still need money, of course, but not so much. There are certain things you just can’t get away from paying for (such as insurance!). However, there are other ways of raising money than membership subscriptions – donations, grants and sponsorships, for example – but the ten people or so willing to serve on the committee could also offer to pay some of the costs out of their own pockets (anything to make it easier!). I suspect that many civic society committee members already do this to some extent – spending money that they don’t necessarily claim back on the work of their society.

I remember one year when we organised an annual dinner at Wakefield which made a surplus of around £200 – a tidy sum that was paid into our general funds. The dinner had been very hard work and there were some sleepless nights: we’d signed a contract with the venue to pay for a set number of places but then the bookings were very slow to come in and it was touch and go as to whether the event would break even, let alone generate a surplus as a fund-raising event, so it was relief all round when we achieved the result we did. In fact, we were in celebratory mood until one of the committee pointed out that if each of the committee (20 strong at the time) had paid £10 each directly to the Society, we’d have achieved the same result without the stress or the fuss. This was rather deflating but was a point well made, especially when you realise that we had each paid around £25 for our tickets to attend the dinner!

The learning point here, of course, is that our desire to put on an event for the members had taken a toll in time, effort and stress to achieve a result that could have been achieved without any of the fuss and hassle.

Before we all rush to dispense with our members though, we need to remember that we all have our written constitutions to follow and that, for those civic societies which are also charities, care would have to be taken to ensure that the charitable aims were still delivered. While it might even be worth considering doing away with the charitable status – it removes the need for all those pesky compliance issues, after all! – there are advantages to being a charity that should not lightly be tossed aside. These include the impact on fund-raising activities when some donors will only consider giving to charities and, of course, the ability to claim Gift Aid.

Now, I’m aware that some very small civic societies might already be the position of having a total membership of just a handful of people – and they might even feel that they are failing. They look at other societies with larger memberships and spend hours worrying over how to recruit more members of their own, almost to the point that the search for new members becomes a millstone around their necks when, according to my argument here, they should be celebrating the fact that they don’t have to spend time and effort servicing a large membership! Surely, that thought alone should be positively liberating!

I know that having members can be rewarding and there are many positives about being a membership organisation. Members provide income and, to a degree, credibility. They can help to spread the news about what the society is doing and what it stands for. They can act as eyes and ears, reporting back to the society on threats to the buildings and public realm in the area. Members will also usually form the pool from which your future committee members will emerge. Running events brings people together and helps strengthen community links; friendships are developed and networks enhanced. I personally have had a great deal of fun from being in charge of an active membership organisation – but it has been exhausting.

So, there we have it: let’s pause and re-think how our civic societies should operate. Do we really need to be large membership-based organisations running events primarily to keep our members entertained? Can we meet our charitable purposes in other ways – and if we can, do we really want to change the model?

Provocative enough?