The changing face of professional institutions

By Marcus Wilson 12/01/2015


I'm sure many readers will know that one of the hats I wear is the treasurer of the New Zealand Institute of Physics. NZIP is the professional organization for physicists within New Zealand. Its aim is to promote the interests of physics and physicists, at all levels, within the country. In addition to counting the beans, the role comes with a position on the council, and therefore I have a significant responsibility for looking after the institution.

With that in mind, I had the dubious pleasure of travelling to Wellington shortly before Christmas to represent NZIP at a meeting of council members of New Zealands 'science' societies at the Royal Society of New Zealand. I use 'science' in a very broad context here.  It was one of those ten-degrees-with-horizontal-rain summer days in the captial*, though that didn't matter too much as the day was spent inside RSNZ's rather nice new building. The day was actually very useful, as we talked through some of the common issues facing our science societies. 

One clear issue that many societies are facing (NZIP included) is dwindling membership. With dwindling membership comes dwindling income, making it harder for the society to do useful things. A great many socieities can't afford paid staff and so run on volunteers who necessarily need to prioritize their time elsewere.  Dwindling income basically means loss of services that can be offered to members, such as travel grants, teaching materials, careers advice, prizes and so forth.  It's a vicious cycle. 

But it's not all bleak, so long as we are prepared to accept the message that is coming from the research in this area. A recent report from the Australasian Society of Association Executives [which I'm afraid I can't find openly on their website, so no link I'm afraid – you might have to pay membership fees for it 😉  ] talks about the changing face of membership. The report is rather pessimistically and not entirely accurately  titled 'Membership is Dead'. It talks about the difference in expectations that a 'Generation Y' person has from the Baby-boomer (I so hate those stereotyping terms – but the report uses them). What particularly got my attention is that the very things that Generation Y values [clearly defined value to them, responsiveness (which means hours or minutes or instant, not days or weeks), innovations, accessibility] are things that baby-boomer-dominated councils see as low priority, because they themselves don't value them. In other words, the expectiations of Generation Y and Council members when it comes to what a science society is and does are vastly different. A Baby-boomer may happily pay their membership fees year-on-year because they feel it's part of their duty as a professional to belong – a Y-er is less likely to take that generous line. If they can't see the value to them, they don't cough up. (For the record, I'm an X-er). It encourages institutions to work hard and getting younger people onto councils, by actively targeting undergraduate students, for example by giving them opportunities to assist with conference organization, website development and maintenance, tweeting on behalf of the society, etc. Then step back and let the younger people run it in a way that the younger people (=future members) want it run. 

So membership isn't actually dead. Instead, we just need to accept that 'membership' is going to mean something different to our younger people and adapt to account for it. Because, if we don't, our societies will dwindle away, to be replaced by something rather different. 

*Maybe I'm a bit harsh here. On our return from the South Island after our Christmas Holiday, the ferry Aratere (with full a complement of screws (propellors) and a fully-functional electrical system) took us across a flat Cook Strait and into a beautifully calm and sun-kissed Wellington harbour. As they say, you can't beat Wellington on a fine day…