A not-quite Socratic dialogue on the subject of membership of organisations.
There are a number of characteristics that define membership organisations, and these do not depend on the particular nature of the organisation. Amongst these is a hierarchy of member types. At the (conceptual) centre there is a group of enthusiastic activists for whom the organisation constitutes a major part of their activity and (sometimes) of their self-image.
At the second level are the less committed but still active members who serve on local committees and may contribute at central level also.
The third level constitutes the herd: those who are interested in the functions of he organisation and wish to participate, but who have decided by conscious thought or gut reaction to be reactive rather than innovative; to attend but not to organise.
Finally there is a group (sometimes surprisingly large) of members who maintain their membership for long periods without any apparent need for participation or recompense.
In defence of the third group, it is a perfectly legitimate choice to join some organisations as an innovative member and others as a reactive member. There is no need for less active members to feel defensive about their choice. The herd provides the organisation with more income than it consumes, and constitutes a pool of future active members; sometimes dogsbodies. It also acts as a measure of the organisation’s effectiveness. When we start bleating and/or leaving, it is a sign that things may be going wrong.
I have fitted into each one of these four groups at different times.
Of particular interest is the last group of “members who maintain their membership for long periods without apparent need for participation or recompense”.
When I joined this group (The Group Relations Training Association) I became a member for the same reason that I am a member of the National Trust, Mencap, CND, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds: they are organisations that are doing something about which I feel strongly, and I am grateful they exist. After two years I became an activist and have enjoyed relating to so many people whose ideas and values have helped me feel good about myself.
I know this is corny, but it has certainly been my experience (and not for the first time) that the more you put in the more you get out. Next year I shall be moving back into another category of membership
* Extracted from notes for the Groupvine magazine of the early 1990s.