1. Context: what kind of society are you?

Learned societies are distinctive organisations, typically established to promote and support work in a particular scholarly discipline, sub-discipline or subject area. There is no precise definition of the criteria an organisation has to meet if it is to count as a learned society, but their typical characteristics mark them as different in many ways from other organisations, even in the voluntary and not-for-profit sector. Many, but by no means all, are registered as charities, with charitable purposes as prescribed under the Charities Act 2011. These are typically defined in terms of the advancement of education and/or the advancement of the arts, culture, heritage or science. Some are incorporated by Royal Charter, with detailed objects, rules of governance and so on set out in the Charter. Others are unincorporated associations, even though in many cases they have constitutions that define their objects in similar terms.

Since the objects and purposes of learned societies are distinctive, their strategies, and the criteria against which they judge success, are likely to be distinctive too. Thus while there may be lessons to be learned from other organisations, particularly in the voluntary and charitable sectors, societies cannot and should not expect to adopt wholesale the processes and practices used by organisations whose objects are very different. Societies have more to learn from each other; hence this guidance.

We have identified in the course of our work nearly two hundred learned societies in the UK which seek to promote the interests of disciplines and subjects in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Even then, that total does not include more than a small proportion of those associations and societies that bring together enthusiasts for a particular author, artist or composer. But the societies we have identified come in many different shapes and sizes.  In size, they may differ according to the number of members, their income or financial reserves, or the number of staff they employ (from nil to 30 or more). They may differ also according to:

  • the scope of the subject or disciplinary coverage (from major disciplines such as history, geography or economics, to sub-disciplines such as architectural history or cartography, or to cross-disciplinary subject areas such as African studies);
  • the profile of the membership, and the extent to which it is dominated by academics or also includes professional practitioners, school teachers, or lay people with an interest in the subject or discipline;
  • the range of activities – meetings, seminars and conferences, journals and other publications, research grants and bursaries, advocacy and lobbying, public outreach and so on – and the audiences at which they are targeted;
  • the extent to which activities are focused on members as distinct from a broader range of stakeholders, and the differentiation between services for members and non-members (including charges and access to those services).

A relatively small number of societies also perform the role of professional associations, seeking to maintain oversight or control over the practice of those engaged in the profession, in order to safeguard the public interest, as well as representing the interests of professional practitioners. Membership of such bodies may be the formal basis for gaining entry to the profession.

Since societies vary hugely in accordance with these and other dimensions, it is important as a first step in reading this guidance to locate your society in the broader landscape of learned societies in the arts, humanities and social sciences. What is appropriate for one society may not be appropriate for another; and it may help to identify societies with similar characteristics. To help in this, we have mapped societies in two sets of quadrants according to:

  1. a) their disciplinary or subject scope alongside the range of their activities; and
  2. b) their income and the range of their membership.

You may find it particularly helpful to discuss different approaches to formulating strategies and plans with colleagues in societies that seem to fit a profile similar to yours.

Up next: Why are strategies valuable and important?