Since attending the very interesting workshop on Future Membership at the AGM, and stimulated by some of the comments made there, and by later discussions, I offer the following thoughts on the future of BFWG, both with regard to recruitment, which was not the subject of the workshop, and to encouraging members to participate in the Federation at the national level, which was. I make no apologies for perhaps being somewhat controversial: my aim is the promotion of discussion!
- We should bear in mind that any ideas the existing members of BFWG, and especially those who attend national meetings, come up with, are handicapped by the fact that we are members, and do attend conferences, and so are not best placed to judge a) why people do not join, and b) why those who join do not participate more. This problem is not unique to us, of course; all organisations, and indeed commercial companies, have the same problem. It’s easy enough to know what keeps your existing customers/members happy, but if you are struggling, it is perhaps more important to know what will attract the rest of your target clientele/membership.
- Many older members joined as young mothers at home. They joined, it seems, as one of our younger members said to me, not for what they would do in the Federation, but for whom they would be doing it with. Younger generations of women graduates, (and I would define younger here as under fifty-five!) who generally speaking do not lack intellectual stimulation, find this culture very alien.
- I would argue that this culture still persists in some LAs. They do not offer a programme that differs greatly from other organisations; there are plenty of book clubs around or groups that put on rather undemanding talks – what is the LA’s USP? Owing no doubt to the age of many of their members, they can be rather inward-looking, giving wonderful mutual support to each other, but having little time or energy to devote to the fate of other women. This explains why LAs are folding, and why many members are unwilling to become involved at the national or international level. It is also why I believe LAs may very well die with that generation.
- In other words, we are in a period of transition from one culture to another. We should be planning for a future without LAs, or at any rate with even fewer than at present, but with members joining together based on their interests, rather than where they live. The proposed e-networks are a way forward, as is the Public Affairs Forum, with face-to-face meetings arising out of e-discussions. These might well be organised on a regional basis. Younger members also assure me that they are perfectly happy to meet in modest surroundings, and to take their own lunch, so as to reduce costs.
- On the subject of meetings, it was suggested at the Future Membership workshop that the AGM should be free to all members. I believe that technically, it is, but going back to my first bullet point, we should think about how we exclude different groups of women from our activities. Lack of access to the internet is often mentioned, but there are other ways of excluding members and potential members. In the dying days of the Oxford Association, I tried but failed to persuade members that their choice of meeting times excluded almost all women who worked. On the other hand, we Oxford members felt rather excluded from wider regional activities, as regional meetings, apart from those we organised ourselves, were held in places inaccessible by public transport. Towards the end, we had only one driver, with a rather small car, so no more than four Oxford members could attend these meetings. Regional meetings are moreover rather expensive. Like the national AGM, the business meeting itself should be open to all, irrespective of whether or not they are willing and able to pay for lunch. Regional meetings are also a wasted opportunity for serious discussion; why do we have to have a speaker telling us things we could perfectly well read for ourselves? I would much rather have the opportunity to discuss current matters of moment with other members, as would, I suspect, most younger members and potential members, or an event such as the North West Academic Presentation Day.
- In the Future Membership workshop, there was discussion also of the recent lack of general resolutions. I said that a common criticism was that nobody paid much attention to them, to which the reply was that the real reason for passing resolutions is to decide what the Federation’s views are, so we have something to say when asked. In fact, I entirely agree with this interpretation, but am not sure that it has ever been explicitly put to the membership in those terms. It was also pointed out that some members who had put forward resolutions in the past had been upset up the hostile reception they had received on the floor of conference.
- In the workshop, there was universal praise for the study days organised by Canterbury and the North East. Clearly, members enjoy discussing difficult issues, so that is not the reason for the lack of resolutions coming to the AGM. The difference between the study days and the traditional resolution is presumably that the former offer ample time for discussion, and there is no pressure to vote for or against a proposition!
- So, if we are to be a dynamic and effective lobbying and networking organisation, could we perhaps bridge the gap between the old and new cultures by concentrating on policies? E-networks, which I hope would involve independent members, could work on ideas, bringing them to meetings that would, I think, also attract some of our longer-standing members who prefer the more traditional ways of working. Well-researched and well-drafted resolutions could then come to the AGM for official approval. This would give any press officer we might appoint something to say!
- With regard to attracting younger members: the view was expressed at the workshop that they tend to be more internationally minded. I would agree with this, and also with the view expressed to me by more than one of our junior members, that with all the pressures on their time, they will get involved with an organisation if it is doing some useful work, and they feel they can contribute.
Susan Miles (Vice President)