Measuring Success: what makes a civic society ‘successful’?

As I travel around the region (and even further afield) giving talks about the civic society movement, I always stress the importance the work that civic societies do. When I give talks about the work of my own society – Wakefield Civic Society – I talk about it in glowing terms as one of the most successful civic societies in the country! Now, that might sound boastful and you may or may not agree with it, but it’s something I believe to be true. But what do we mean when we talk about successful civic societies? What makes them successful and is it possible to measure their success objectively?

One of the advantages of being on the YHACS committee is that I do get to visit other civic societies and, over the years, I may well have met people from just about all our member societies as well as others from outside the region. Wherever I go, though, there’s always one question that gets asked: “How many members do you have?” To be fair, I’m as likely to ask it of you as you are to ask it of me about Wakefield Civic Society. Our fascination with membership numbers does suggest that, rightly or wrongly, size is seen as one of the key markers for success – the bigger the society’s membership, the more successful it must be.

But is that the best measure of success and, if we are to use membership numbers as a measure of success, should we put it into context by comparing the membership numbers with total population? Let’s look at three civic societies, not that far apart geographically.

At the time of writing (2017), Wakefield Civic Society has a membership of around 250, which is very reasonable for a civic society. However, the city of Wakefield has a resident population of around 80,000 so, in broad terms, our membership represents just 0.3% of the population.

Meanwhile, Addingham Civic Society has around 360 members, which is very impressive for a village and, with a resident population of 3,800, it means that nearly 10% of the population are members of the society.

Then there’s Leeds Civic Trust with a membership of 485 out of a population of 450,000, so the membership amounts a little over 0.1% of the population.

On this basis, Leeds, which looks the biggest of the three at first glance, is less successful than Wakefield, but Wakefield is less successful than Addingham. Yes, in percentage terms, Addingham is the most successful of the three societies.

But before we award that trophy, what happens if we use a different metric? What if we don’t use membership numbers, but instead look at overall annual income: in 2016, Leeds had an income of over £200,000; Wakefield just over £12,000 and Addingham around £3,000. Here then, Leeds comes out top and Addingham comes out bottom. As can be seen, income doesn’t necessarily relate directly to membership numbers: it’s more complicated than that. Income comes from many sources, not just membership subscriptions, and subscription levels (and types) will have an impact on the income generated: those societies with an established corporate membership scheme, for example, will probably raise more in membership subscriptions overall than those societies that don’t have one and, when averaged out across the membership, the average take per member is likely to be higher too.

Money isn’t everything, however, and societies might only set out to raise the money they need to cover the things they want to do so perhaps we should measure success by the number of activities that a society organises during the year? Now, I don’t have comparison figures to hand to be able to declare a winner in this category but I’m confident that my own society, Wakefield, would score well. With our talks programme, our excursions and visits, our guided walks and blue plaque unveilings and not forgetting our very popular monthly Dining Club, we probably average close to three events per month – 30 to 40 per year – and sometimes more; quite an achievement for an organisation run entirely by a handful of volunteers.

Of course, a large proportion of the events we run at Wakefield are targeted at attracting new members (while also retaining existing ones) – and it’s not surprising that larger societies run more events, so maybe it would be a little unfair to measure the success or otherwise of a society based purely on the number of events they run. We need some understanding of context, particularly if we are ranking societies against each other: horses for courses and all that.

We could look at projects, by which I mean those practical projects that lead to physical improvements to the public realm (such a litter picking, tree planting, repairing amenities, conservation projects to bring old buildings back into use, and so on). These projects are tangible, often highly visible and benefit local communities directly. I know some civic societies that have done terrific work in restoring, repainting, replanting, etc. My own society did lots of this practical stuff back in the 1960s and 70s (although I wasn’t there at the time and can take no credit): there are photos in the Society’s archives showing our members cleaning off graffiti, picking up litter, and planting trees. However, times have changed. There are now many more agencies and organisations that routinely undertake this work so that often all it takes is a phone call or email to the right person or organisation to prompt some sort of response and the Society doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting. But does a lack of practical projects indicate an unsuccessful society? Not necessarily!

So, if we are not going to use membership numbers, overall income, number of events, or number of projects as our overarching measure of a successful society, what are we left with?

Well, how about influence and impact? A successful society will undoubtedly interact with a wide number of stakeholders – decision makers within local and possibly national government, property owners and local businesses as well as local residents. And these interactions will be used by the society to convey messages about planning, heritage and design that will influence stakeholders in their thinking so that the society can point to outcomes and claim it was these interventions that led to the result achieved – in other words, the actions of the society had an impact on the result. However, demonstrating cause and effect in these situations can be very difficult unless credit is given publicly: sometimes, an outcome that chimes with the society’s aspirations may be no more than lucky chance or pure coincidence. We might claim ‘it was us that did it’, but can we prove it?

As you’ve probably guessed by now, there’s no easy way of measuring the overall success or otherwise of a civic society. The successful ones will be firing on all cylinders – doing lots of different things, or perhaps just a few big things, but doing them all really well. Context is important but so is reputation. How do your members regard what you do? What do people outside your membership think of you? (Have they even heard of you?) Do people come to you for advice? Are you the first place people come to for information and support when they need it? Do they trust your judgement?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to these questions, then no matter how many members you have, how much money you have, or how many events and projects you are running, to be held in high regard by others and to be trusted as ‘honest brokers’ is perhaps one of the true markers of a successful civic society.