The initial focus of the online RSA networks system - launched in November 2007 - was on encouraging Fellows to propose and develop civic innovation projects , and there are quite a few in the system. Since then the role of the system has expanded to include general networking by Fellows.
It is the importance of this sort of lateral networking between members of nonprofits that Clay Shirky emphasised recently, while in the UK to promote the paperback edition of his book Here Comes Everybody. He was interviewed by Amy Sample Ward.
Clay said that in a world where more and more people were connecting online with their interest groups, they would not be satisfied with old-style one-way membership services: you pay us the money, and we send a newsletter. Nor would the opportunity to provide feedback be enough. Members would want something better than the networking they could do for themselves online.
This new, customised convening role could fit well with development of RSA networks, if the system is linked to membership profiles that allow Fellows to connect with others that have similar interests.
Having some sense that you all care about the issue - you all share something in common, whether it is geography or outlook or skills - and only we as an organisation can see into both of those kinds of values …
… that I think is the really radical convening function. Not just passive convening - use your membership in Greenpeace as a dating network for like-minded individuals - anyone can spin off that idea.
It’s really when a nonprofit can say we think you will find value from associating with these particular groups at this particular time.
But it requires a really dramatic shift …. and saying actually, in the same ways as we talk about the members of the body, we are made up of you, not just made up of your money and our executive committee, we are made up of you, the members, as our existence.
You then start to figure out ways to coordinate the members in ways to create the kind of value that we couldn’t have gotten to in the 20th century … but is now becoming not just available, but cheap, trival and expected by people.
More about Clay's interview here.