Where are we now?

A hard look at the society’s current performance  is an essential starting point for thinking about strategies for the future. It involves assessing evidence on a number of issues.


3.1.1 What are we trying to achieve as a society?

Many societies have pointed to the importance of starting by asking fundamental questions about their core purposes or mission, aims and the values they are seeking to promote. As more than one society put it, they needed to ask ‘What do we exist for?’. That may well involve thinking hard not just about activities, but about what benefits the society is seeking to provide to whom, and how these fit with the society’s core objects.  That in turn may require a thorough examination of the external environment and competition from other organisations, including other societies.

Stakeholder analysis may also be helpful here, thinking through

  • who your key stakeholders are: different groups of members and potential members; the universities and other institutions in which they work; schools and other educational organisations;  Government and other public bodies;  research funders; other organisations that support the society and its work;  and other individuals and organisations in the UK and overseas that may have an interest in the subjects or disciplines that your society seeks to promote
  • the varying interests, needs and expectations of those different groups of stakeholders and in particular the balance between the interests of members and non-members, and how the society engages with them; and how those interests intersect with, or affect on your society
  • a ranking of the importance for your society of those different groups of individuals and organisations, and how your society might most effectively build and manage relationships with them

There are a number of simple tools that may help in an analysis of this kind. A useful starting point is the NCVO Knowhow site.

The value of this kind of approach is that it focuses not so much on activities, as on the key audiences the society is seeking to reach, to influence or support. It also involves thinking through why and how the interests of different groups are important to the society, and why the benefits the society is seeking to provide are important to those different groups.

As one society put it, you may need to find out what other people and organisations think about your society, what it does, and how valued it is. That in turn leads to questions as to how broadly (or narrowly) the society seeks to define its audiences, and why. Focusing attention on a relatively narrow range of specific groups may be the best strategy, especially for smaller societies. Other larger societies have decided that as charities they must look to provide benefits and value to civil society as a whole, and not just to the academic community or to those who happen to be members.

3.1.2 How successful are we in achieving our purposes?

Taking stock of what the society currently does, and how that fits with its core purposes, is an  essential part of thinking about strategies for the future. So it’s important to ensure that you have an in-depth understanding of the society’s activities and the value that they provide to members and other stakeholders. Some societies approach this by focusing on groups of core activities in turn, assessing them in terms of the society’s objects and purposes, and the benefits it is seeking to provide.

Many people will be familiar with the analysis of internal strengths and weaknesses that is part of a SWOT analysis. This involves thinking hard-headedly about

  • what the society does well or indifferently;
  • what members think is done well or indifferently;
  • perceived gaps in activities and services; and
  • the activities which are most or least successful in achieving the benefits for members and other groups that the society seeks; and
  • any changes in the wider environment that are having an adverse impact on the society.

Many societies have used this kind of approach to identify and build on what they do best. As one relatively small society which concentrates on services for its members puts it:

‘focus on how to support and provide services valued by your members’

3.1.3 What does our community, discipline, membership and other stakeholders want or need?

Many societies conduct surveys of members and monitor attendance and participation in events and other activities, via feedback forms and the like. Others rely on regular interactions between officers and staff on the one hand, and members on the other, or on monitoring members’ renewal rates and participation in elections to the Council or Board.  But it is important to gather as many sources of evidence as possible as to the needs and wants of members and other stakeholders, and the extent to which they are being met.

Some societies have noticed that while academic members are generally content with the services they receive, non-academic members are less satisfied; and they have hence concluded that they need to do more to understand the needs of such members, and how they might best be met within the resources likely to be available. That is not to say that societies should do everything that members want: as one society puts it, members’ expectations are sometimes unrealistic, and ‘we can’t do everything’. That is an issue that needs to be tackled through effective communication both during and after the process of producing a strategy. Another society is clear that it must not be ‘trapped’ by the needs of the current membership, but must rather take a broader view of its role, which may result in new kinds of members joining the society, since they see value in the services it provides..

Where societies do see their roles as extending beyond the needs of academic members, it is important that they consider carefully

  • who the key groups of external stakeholders are;
  • their interests and expectations; and
  • how the society might most effectively communicate with, and seek engagement from, members of key stakeholder groups .

A number of societies communicate with external groups by circulating regular newsletters and briefing papers on issues of interest and concern in their discipline; but securing active engagement can be harder. Both academic and non-academic members are often keen for societies to do more to develop contacts with external stakeholders, as well as more straightforward communication via briefing papers and the like, the reach and effectiveness of which is monitored via websites and so on. But personal contact with members of key external stakeholder groups can also be critically important, in order to champion and promote the disciplines and subjects that societies represent, as well as to ensure that societies have a clear understanding of what they can most usefully provide in the way of services to those different groups.

3.1.4 How efficiently and effectively do we generate and use our financial and other resources?

Societies need to analyse carefully the different sources of their incoming resources: membership subscriptions, fees for conferences and other events, publications, investments, grants and other sources, and the balance between them as a whole. There are then important questions about how expenditure of resources – the time and energy of officers and staff as well as cash – relates to the core objects and purposes of the society, and to the benefits it is seeking to provide for the discipline and to members, key non-member groups and other stakeholders. In that context, societies need to be clear about

  • which activities generate revenues, and which consume them;
  • whether they and those who are providing the revenues are content with the current pattern;
  • the risks to current sources and levels of income;
  • the scope for increasing revenues; and
  • the scope for reducing expenditure.


For those societies that publish journals (especially if they outsource the publications to a specialist publisher), the surplus on the publications account is sometimes the largest single source of income, used to fund other activities. In those circumstances, societies are very conscious of the time, energy and expertise provided by members and others in supporting the publication process, and of the risks posed by current policies from research funders promoting a shift to open access. As we have noted earlier, societies are as yet (2015) seeing relatively little negative impact from such policies, but it will be important to keep the issue under very active review. For a relatively small number of societies, we recognise that  publications are only minor source of income; some societies actually make a loss on their publications, and are content to do so.

Income from membership subscriptions also varies considerably in importance. Some societies have decided to keep the level of subscriptions low in order to attract members or for other reasons; but other societies are very much aware that a decision of this kind limits their ability to extend or enhance their activities and services. Hence some societies deliberately seek to make a surplus on their services to members, while others (particularly those that have some of the characteristics of professional societies) earn significant income from CPD and other courses, or from accreditation services.

For some societies, income from conferences, workshops and other related activities – for the benefit of both members and non-members – is a significant source of revenue; but other societies take the view that such activities should do no more than break even, or even run at a loss as a service to their members and other communities.

Yet other societies have built up significant investments on their balance sheets, and use their investment income either as a buffer against financial risk, or as a means to support new initiatives. But few of the smaller societies have the luxury of significant amounts of investment income.

Finally, it is important for all societies to acknowledge and assess the extent to which they depend on the resources of time, energy and expertise provided by volunteers, whether as officers, trustees or members. Societies need then to ask whether current levels of such resources are likely to be sustained, and if not, how this might impact on the society as a whole.


For those societies that employ staff, salaries, pensions and so on are typically the major expenditure item; and any decisions to add to or reduce staff numbers are thus of critical importance. Some societies have decided, even though they have sufficient funds to meet staff costs, instead to pay honoraria to officers to enable them to meet the costs of the secretarial and administrative support they need during their period of office; and others contract with universities or other institutions to employ staff on their behalf.

Other administrative expenses tend to be low. Premises – where they are needed – are often rented from universities on favourable terms; and only a very small minority of societies own their own property.

Hence other major heads of expenditure tend to be on directly public good or member services. These include conferences and meetings, though societies differ as to whether they expect meetings to cover their costs out of payments by participants, or to be subsidised or even free of charge, with costs met from other sources of revenue. It is important that such matters are fully discussed in any process to develop a new strategy.

Grant schemes feature prominently in many societies’ activities, with support for small research projects, bursaries for early career researchers, grants for seminars and workshops, and so on. Levels of competition for such grants vary significantly; but some societies devote considerable resources to the administration of such schemes, while others are much more light-touch in their procedures. A relatively small number of societies see their grant schemes as among their core purposes, and as an essential complement to the grant schemes run by the Research Councils, the major grant-giving charities, and other public bodies. Again, it is important that such issues should be open for discussion in the process of developing a new strategy.

3.1.5 How do our activities relate to those of other societies or organisations active in our field?

Societies operate in a complex environment, even within their specialised fields. There are complex relationships between societies covering the whole of a major discipline, such as sociology or archaeology on the one hand, and those covering sub-disciplines (such as criminology or environmental archaeology), or cross disciplinary subject areas (such as Latin American Studies) on the other. Societies covering broadly similar fields of scholarship –in for example, philosophy or education – may have significantly different profiles of members (the extent to which they extend beyond the academic community, for instance) and of activities; and they may focus their activities and services on different audiences. Academics, teachers and other groups of members  may choose to join more than one society, and vary in their levels of engagement with different societies.

Each society, therefore, has to think about its distinctive characteristics, its relationships with other societies and subject associations, and how they complement or compete with each other. Some societies have built up very close relationships, with regular liaison between them, and clear, but often overlapping, areas of interest and activity. Some work in partnership on joint activities; and in areas such as archaeology there are well-established mechanisms, through bodies such as the Council for British Archaeology, for helping to cement such co-operation, which can also help to increase efficiency and effectiveness in expenditure of resources.

But it can be difficult to work closely with other societies that have different interests, resources and ways of operating. Some societies may therefore largely ignore the activities of societies and other organisations that seem to work in closely related areas. And for yet other societies, relationships are more like rivalry and competition than partnership. In societies covering a large discipline, for instance, special interest groups may compete directly with a separate society that seeks to support a sub-discipline, and vice versa. Different societies have reported loss of members and of influence in both directions.

Hence societies must be clear about those societies with which they are partnering successfully, or where the partnership is moribund or even damaging.

Up next: Part 2: Where would we like to be and how might we get there?