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Challenges for Membership Organisations (No. 1): Sir Clive Woodward and the RFU

Adrian Porter Head of Strategic Research

I am currently researching Precedent’s next sector report which will identify and offer solutions to some of the challenges that professional and trade membership organisations currently face in the contemporary digital environment. Its working title is ‘Membership Organisations – Big Questions – Digital Answers?’ My initial fact finding has involved a lot of surfing in order to identify key themes that describe the problems that organisations are facing.

One of the major issues seems to be a membership base that is getting older, and the fact that it is more often than not these older members who are most active in the management, direction and administration of the organisation.

Professional organisations are struggling to attract younger members. Sure they have the full attention of the youngsters when they are training, or they are aiming for some letters after their names, but after this engagement levels drop off considerably, if not entirely.

There are a number of reasons for this, some of which I will feature here in the run up to the release of our report (eta February). However, I was reminded of one of the reasons on my commute home earlier this week. I was reading the Evening Standard, and my eye was taken by Sir Clive Woodward describing the RFU as ‘a laughing stock around the world’. Woodward was criticising the RFU’s structure and decision making processes, particularly with respect to the appointment of Martin Johnson as England team coach by Rob Andrew. Despite the resignation of Johnson following the world cup debacle, Andrew has taken no responsibility for England’s failure in the tournament and is likely to be in charge of appointing the next England coach too!

Woodward’s analysis of the situation was summed up by the journalist Jason Cowley thus: “The laughter and derision will continue until a new chief executive and distinguished coach are appointed and the RFU demonstrate they are a fit and proper institution rather than an old boys' club of incompetents and can create a system and development programme that begins to reverse such alarming decline.”

Harsh words! But what do they have to do with membership organisations?

Well, firstly the RFU is in effect a membership organisation owned by its member clubs that is beginning to lose the respect of its membership due, it seems, to partisan decision making. Whether true or not the image of a self-serving ‘old boys club’ is one that is hard to shake, and is similar to the way many communication experts have heard other organisations described in young membership workshops.

Secondly, maybe describing the hierarchy at the RFU as ‘incompetents’ might be a little strong, but certainly there would appear to be a reluctance to embrace change and explore new ways of doing things across the boards of many establishments, not just the RFU.

And finally, if organisations cannot make themselves more relevant to their younger potential membership by understanding what they need, when they need it as well as how and where to engage with them, they may well be heading for an ‘alarming decline’, just like the RFU.

This and other themes will be the focus of our report into membership organisations. We intend to explore them further via an online survey and interviews with senior stakeholders across a variety of organisations in the UK and Australia.