Case study: Restructuring and enhancing communications

Richard Dowden, Royal African Society

1. Summary of the development/change and who led it

In 2005, the Royal African Society (RAS) sensed it should expand its activities and act more like a national entity. Its core was its academic journal African Affairs which was – and is – ranked the leading African journal in the world. Having no building of it own, RAS was hosted based by the School of Oriental and African Studies where it held largely academic meetings including an Annual Lecture. It had branches in Bristol and Edinburgh. It employed a secretary full time and part time assistants.  In 2003, realising its potential, Sir Michael McWilliam, then Chair, invited Richard Dowden who had recently been Africa Editor of The Economist, to “up its game”.

2. Drivers for the development/change

After the wars and chaos of the 1990s Africa was becoming more peaceful and beginning to grow. The RAS realised the potential for African voices to be  heard in politics, the arts and culture, as well as business opportunities. It strengthened its academic base by taking on the administration of the African Studies Association of the UK. With partners we launched the African Arguments book series published by Zed books which involved academics writing short books on current issues in non-academic language. These were very successful and led to the establishment of a website where we continue the debates.

A new logo was designed and a more varied meetings programme began. Business Breakfasts with prominent speakers were introduced and well attended by investors looking for new markets and opportunities in Africa. In parliament the RAS prompted the foundation of an Africa All Party Parliamentary Group. A project, funded by Dfid, was set up to engage the African diaspora in London and let African voices to be heard. RAS then moved into the arts, establishing annual African film and book festivals. Finally resources, both money and staff time, were put into the websites.

3. Date implementation started and stage reached by December 2015

There was no Big Bang or even a strategic plan. Change was opportunistic, experimental and gradual. Every penny to support the changes had to be begged from business or foundations. It began in 2004. There was no strategic plan but much trial and error to find what people interested in Africa wanted. Failures included an Africa Asia Centre for studying and publicising China’s increasing involvement in Africa. No funds were raised.

4. Outcomes to date

Revenue rose from £136,000 to over £637,000 in 10 years. Membership remained almost exactly the same at around 1050 but attendance at meetings increased more than ten fold. The websites – including the RAS site and the Film and Book festivals sites as well as the very successful African Arguments debating site had more than 1.4 million unique users in 2015.

We feel that we have helped push Africa up the political, business, artistic and public agenda in the UK, engaged in intelligent conversation about Africa, promoted a better understanding of its problems and successes and drawn people in to enjoy and celebrate its cultures through books and films.

5. Main challenges /barriers that had to be overcome and how this was achieved

  • Lack of resources and time spent on raising them.
  • Image of RAS as an old colonial organisation
  • Bright young staff being poached by wealthier organisations
  • The image of Africa as a continent of war, disease and failure.

6. Lessons learned/ advice to others considering similar developments

  • Follow Deng Xiaoping’s advice on crossing a river – step by step. Not Mao’s revolution. We quietly introduced new programmes or improved existing ones without frightening (too many of) the more traditional Council members most of whom are now delighted with the changes.
  • Big names as speakers or chairs for big events – which also attracted sponsors.
  • Partnership was our middle name and because of the effectiveness of our staff we often adapted existing good but weakly-led programmes and ideas.