Where would we like to be and how might we get there?

Learned societies operate in a fast changing environment, and it is important to examine

  • what is changing and how,
  • how this may affect the society, its members and stakeholders,
  • options for the future development of the society, and
  • actions that may be necessary in order to achieve them.

Thinking about the future thus involves a number of questions.


3.2.1 How is the environment we work in changing, and how is it likely to affect us?

Changes in the external environment that may affect your society come in many different forms. Their impact and effects may vary similarly: they may be financial or operational on the one hand; or they may represent either a threat or an opportunity on the other.

Schools and universities

Changes in the education sector, at both school and university levels, may have profound effects on subjects and disciplines, and hence on societies and those they seek to support and serve. The same is clearly true of changes in levels of research funding, and the policies of research funders.

Societies must therefore be aware of and seek to understand such changes and their likely impact, and how it might be possible to influence changes in the future. This is made more complex as the structures and policy imperatives of Government and non-departmental public bodies change; and for the majority of societies that seek to cover the whole of the UK, devolution of responsibilities to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has added yet a further layer of complexity.

Some societies are concerned about the increasing pressures on early-career researchers, while others express concerns about changes in initial teacher training and its impact in their subject or discipline. As one society puts it, they need to be

‘constantly aware of the broader academic context in which we work, and try to be proactive about change’.

Another realises that in their next strategy exercise, they need to

‘examine the effects of the ‘evidence agenda’ on research and teaching [in their subject area].

Other societies

Changes in the activities and plans of other societies and related organisations may also have an impact, while for societies with significant publishing operations and income, the continuing rapid changes in publishing, and funders’ policies relating to open access, are certain to have an impact over the next few years.

As part of the review of relationships with other societies, each society should review whether or not it wishes to build on or extend existing partnerships, or to compete, or whether merger might be an option. The Charity Commission is considering how it might raise awareness of collaborations and mergers as elements of strategic planning.

Examples among learned societies include the Classical Association, which has close relationships with the Societies for Roman Studies and Hellenic Studies, which are in turn closely associated with the Institute of Classical Studies in the School of Advanced Studies in the University of London. It has also recently taken over responsibility for the schools-based Joint Association of Classical Teachers. In a very different field, the British Sociological Association both partners and competes with sub-discipline societies such as the Criminology Society and the Social Policy Association; but it has recently taken over responsibility for the Association for the Teaching of Social Sciences (again schools-based). In both these cases, the merger with a schools-based organisation has brought a welcome extension to the interests and activities of the society. But in other subjects and disciplines (for example history and geography), societies covering the schools as distinct from the university and research sectors remain separate, although often with close working relationships

Subjects and disciplines

Other changes may come from within subjects or disciplines themselves. Some societies have lost members in the past, or failed to exploit the potential for expanding their membership, because they have not responded adequately to new developments in the discipline, or changes in the profile of those who are active in the field or the profession.

Knowledge economy

For the majority of societies for which outreach and engagement beyond the membership is an important aim, it is important to be aware of changes in the wider knowledge economy, the impact of technological change, and how they might exploit and influence such changes. As one society put it ‘we need to do more horizon scanning’;  while another pointed out that in a period of rapid change, it was important that any strategy or plan should be flexible and not constraining.

3.2.2 Do we expect to grow, contract, or stay the same?

For some societies, maintaining a broadly steady state in terms of membership, resources and activities in a time of change may be a reasonable aim or expectation. But societies will have to think about the actions they will have to take to achieve such a steady state, and avoid the risk of stasis leading to decline.

For other societies which are conscious of financial and other constraints affecting both themselves and their membership, a natural response may be to ‘batten down the hatches’ as one society put it; and in some cases it may be thought necessary to reduce or close down activities that no longer fit with current circumstances and aims. But both staff and members need the optimism that comes from setting decision-making in the context of an effective strategy; and financial and other constraints may also be thought of as an opportunity to think creatively about new ways of doing things. Members and staff need to feel that the society is seeking to achieve something more than mere viability. Focusing on survival alone is likely to lead to contraction and ossification.

Thus for yet other societies, growth and the potential for enhancement of activities may be a natural expectation, though as noted earlier (Section 2.6) it’s important to achieve an appropriate balance between ambition and realism, and whether the expected growth can actually be achieved. We consider this further in Section 3.2.3.

3.2.3 What are our ambitions, and why?

For a number of societies, one of the main lessons from previous strategy exercises has been the need to express ambition. For without ambition there is the risk of stasis and worse. Hence it is important to think hard about possible opportunities and how they might be exploited, and about possibilities for new or enhanced activities, as well as current activities that might be curtailed or even stopped.

Policy and public affairs

Many societies see major opportunities to engage in more policy and public affairs activities in their areas of interest, through briefings, surveys, lectures and seminars aimed at specific audiences, and regular engagement with both specialist and generalist media. Through such means they seek to promote their discipline and the interests of research and scholarship, but also to make positive contributions to current debates, exploiting the expertise of their members and making them available for specialist comment, discussion and advice as appropriate. Hence some societies are planning to increase such activities significantly.

we plan to develop our advocacy and policy activities, to become a powerful voice for the academic community in [our subject area]’

‘the policy and public affairs agenda is limitless, but a huge opportunity which needs much more input and effort from us’

Such activities may require creating banks of briefing materials to be used as occasion demands, rather than waiting for opportunities to arise when response times are very short. It may also require collaboration with other societies and organisations covering similar or related areas of interest. But since the scope for such activities is so large, societies need to assess where and how they can have the greatest effect.

New forms of outreach and communication

Websites are a key resource in outreach and communications both with members and wider groups of stakeholders; and some societies are now beginning to exploit the interactive potential of their websites. Thus the development of online resources – briefings, podcasts, webinars, blogs and the like – has been a major imperative for several societies, along with an expanding use of social media to reach new and extended audiences. All these mechanisms offer powerful ways of engaging and communicating with people – in the UK and beyond – who may not otherwise have any knowledge of or contact with the society. As one society puts it

‘we need to develop the online offer both to members and to external stakeholders, in the form of podcasts, webinars and so on, and our use of social media’

Members are often keen to see more such developments, and for societies to develop more forums and other mechanisms through which they and their members might engage more effectively – in the interest of the discipline – with major interest groups beyond academia, including school teachers, policy makers, and interested members of the general public. That implies developing appropriate expertise and  resources to communicate effectively with different stakeholder groups, and thereby to build a reputation for effective contributions and dialogue.

Expanding the membership

Many societies are also keen to extend their active base of members beyond academia to include wider stakeholder groups, though it is not always easy to achieve that, at least in the short term; and in some cases, societies are keen to ensure that research remains the core of their membership and activities.

Ambition and priorities

In all these, areas, and indeed others, it is important for societies to frame their ambitions and priorities in terms of their core objects: what do they want to achieve in the future and why; how does this fit with their current profile of activities; and do they have – or can they develop – the expertise and resources to fulfil their ambitions.

3.2.4 What do we need to do to achieve our ambitions?

In developing their strategies, societies must clearly think about the actions and resources needed to achieve their aims and objectives. As one society put it, you need to be

very clear about what is possible within the resources available’.

In some cases this may mean adding to or restructuring staff resources, or assigning new responsibilities to officers of the society. In others it may require shifts of revenue from one activity to another, or major fund-raising. Thus one society has decided to use some of its reserves, as well as resources from a fund-raising campaign, to increase its grants to early-career researchers, to invest more in its publications, and to increase its capacity for research into issues affecting researchers in its discipline. Another is considering whether to increase its staffing or to outsource some of its administrative tasks relating, for instance, to conferences and other events.

In this context, it is important for societies to consider carefully whether their ambitions imply a sustained increase or re-profiling of their activities, or to adopt new priorities for a time-limited period. This in turn will have an impact on the funds and other resources needed to implement the strategy.

3.2.5 What are the key challenges we need to address?

As we noted in Section 2.3, challenges may be external or internal. Among the former, several societies are conscious of the risks we have already mentioned relating to open access publishing. Societies vary widely as to the extent to which they depend on income from journals to fund other activities; and while there is little sign as yet of significant falls in publishing income, some societies are resigned to such a fall in the medium term. There are also concerns about possible risks to the quality of journals if there are moves to produce them ‘on the cheap’. Hence some societies are looking to develop new publishing models, and to add value to the products of their publishing programmes.

Other societies are concerned also about challenges arising from the demographic profiles of their members and potential members: disproportionate numbers of older or younger members of the core profession; imbalances between men and women, lack of ethnic diversity and so on. Such imbalances can pose risks both to the society and more broadly to the subjects or disciplines they seek to represent and promote.

Demographic profiles can thus be associated with internal challenges in the form of tensions between groups of members with different cultures and expectations of the society and the services it provides. Some societies, therefore, are conscious that there are different groups – within and beyond the membership – who have different interests and may seek to pursue their own agendas. This can give rise to challenges in

changing cultures and perceptions among some groups of members who tend to see the society as a framework for their own activities’ 

‘managing individuals and groups with differing agendas, and arriving at decisions’

‘supporting a diverse community of members, who wish to remain pluralistic,; but this makes it difficult to speak with one voice.

3.2.6 Opportunities to cut costs or increase income

Strategy exercises should always, as we have noted in Section 4.1.4, include a review of the main heads of expenditure; and it may be that in looking to the future, there is a need to consider how costs can be reduced under one or more of the main heads. But there should also be a review of opportunities to increase income. We have noted in our evidence-gathering that only a relatively small number of societies engage actively in fund-raising to support specific projects or grant schemes. Moreover, it is noticeable that active efforts and strategies to increase income are relatively rare among learned societies in the social sciences and humanities, despite the large number of them that are registered as charities.


Some societies are actively seeking to increase the size of their membership in order to increase their income, but such strategies are likely to take some time to have a significant impact, except in the case of a merger with another society (see Section 4.1.6). And most societies are very cautious about increasing subscription prices, for fear of loss of members. Only a very few societies are taking active steps to seek donations or legacies from their members

Charges for services

Many societies are similarly reluctant to increase their charges for services such as conferences, meetings and workshops in order to generate income for other activities and public good services. Only a small number of societies appear to have the scope or the capacity to develop services that might generate income from stakeholders in the commercial, public or voluntary sectors

Fund-raising from foundations and other sources

Again, only a small number of societies are taking active measures to seek grants from charitable foundations or other sources, to enable them to extend the range of their activities. For the majority of societies, grants from external bodies constitute at most a relatively minor part of their income.

Strategy and income generation

We suggest that examining the potential for increasing income from a range of sources should be an integral part of any strategy exercise, while recognising that the scale of that potential may be small in many cases, especially for the smaller societies. Nevertheless, it may be useful to characterise different sources of income as rising stars, cash cows, problematic sources and so on, and to identify key areas of potential growth or loss.


3.2.7 Are our governance and staffing arrangements appropriate to our needs and our aims?

Some societies have realised that their governance and staffing structures need to be modified in the light of changing circumstances, or in order to meet their core aims:

  • key officers and staff may change too often, or not often enough;
  • governing boards and councils may not have effective control;
  • those running the society’s affairs may become out of touch with the members, who may thus feel disenfranchised; or
  • election procedures may not generate a board of trustees who have the necessary combination of skills and experience..

Some societies have therefore thought hard about

  • the key characteristics they need in both their voluntary officers and their staff in order to meet their strategic objectives;
  • the structures and allocation of responsibilities between officers and staff.; and
  • the periods of office for both officers and members of the governing body, where there appears to be a consensus that a term of office of less than three years for a President or Chair is likely to imply that any fundamental change in the society may become practicably impossible

In some cases this has meant structuring responsibilities around the interests and capabilities of the officers and staff currently in post. But more generally, a number of societies have concluded that fundamental change in changing administrative and governance arrangements is a strategic priority.

One society, for example, decided as a core part of its strategy to restructure its governance by appointing Vice Presidents who are each responsible for an area of activity corresponding to one of the society’s strategic goals, thus establishing a tight link between governance and strategy. Another has Vice Presidents who represent different communities of interest; while yet another has appointed a small executive group of honorary officers in place of a large Council, which now functions as an elected consultative and advisory, rather than an executive body.

Many other societies recognise that reliance on the voluntary efforts of honorary officers – supported perhaps by some administrative staff who lack the executive power to make decisions – effectively limits societies’ ambitions and their ability to grow and enhance their activities. As one society put it

‘we depend on the interests and energy of the different officers, and that has a real impact on our effectiveness in key areas; there is always the risk of loss of momentum’.

In such circumstances, it is clearly important that honorary officers are appointed who do have the necessary expertise  time and energy, but also that they have a clear strategic framework in which to work. The Charity Commission provides guidance on all these points.

Up next: Formulating a strategy: processes and procedures