At the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) we are in the midst of formulating our next five-year strategy, which will guide our work until the end of 2021. It is a fascinating exercise, as we consider the changing external contexts, our aspirations and how we might best achieve them, and how to resource our ongoing work and fund new developments.
I have been deeply involved in the development of all four successive strategies since 1996. The common thread is the Society’s Objective as set out in our Royal Charter, namely ‘the advancement of geographical science’. This provides the broad scope within which to shape our work.
The first full strategy (1998-2005) unlocked our Collections for public benefit; created new buildings and refurbished spaces, including the Ondaatje Theatre; gave us a welcoming public face on Exhibition Road; raised funds for expedition and fieldwork grants; and commenced the integration of the communities, activities and cultures of the Institute of British Geographers and the Royal Geographical Society.
The second strategy (2006-2010) focused on defining what a 21st century, open, inclusive, learned geographical society and charity would feel like, look like and do. The Society developed a substantial presence in four new key areas of work: support for secondary geography teachers and schools; engaging new public audiences, including diverse community groups; pro-active advocacy on behalf of geography; and work on standards with practising geographers. We also maintained a strong programme in research/higher education and in expeditions/fieldwork, as advised by their respective committees.
The third strategy (2012-2016) has further built our momentum, profile and reputation across all areas of our work. For example, we developed new and exciting ways of engaging new audiences, such as through geographical walks, acclaimed exhibitions, and activities to promote social mobility and help realise potential in young people through fieldwork and expeditions. We established a new field research programme, Migrants on the Margins, a Society first in addressing an issue of global importance on the ground in African and Asian cities. We advised government on the new geography curriculum in schools, and much more. Meanwhile our ‘core’ activities – such as Monday Night Lectures; our regional programme of lectures, debates and field trips; the journals; the Annual International Conference; and Explore weekend – also flourished.
“I encourage Fellows and members of the Society to submit their ideas for the 2017-2021 strategic plan”
At the end of this 20-year period, the Society is well known and highly respected; recognised internationally by peers as a world-leading scholarly geographical society; and sought out for advice by government and sister bodies. We are open, professional, and innovative. We value and use our history and heritage; and retain a streak of engaging eccentricity! We benefit from c. 16,000 loyal and supportive Fellows and members, and nearly 3,000 volunteers and donors.
Lowther Lodge is home to our many different communities. We have a strong media profile, a sound financial basis (albeit asset rich and relatively cash poor), and a hard-working and resourceful staff. Our work engages more than three million people annually. Geography is in the strongest position it has been in for more than 20 years thanks to our actions and advocacy as well as that of others. All this is the product of the focus brought by our strategies and a lot of hard work by many people. This includes the wide range of audiences the Society works with to advance geographical science – from researchers and students, to expeditioners and field scientists, teachers, the wider public, policy makers and geography practitioners.
So, the question now is where do we go from here? How do we build on the work of past decades? Some of the thoughts arising from consultations so far include an aspiration to retain and further develop our leading position. There is support for maintaining the current breadth and balance of our work across our different audiences; and for ensuring we continue to promote, safeguard and develop the discipline we represent – geography – as an independent and integrated discipline, while championing its contribution to interdisciplinary issues. The Society’s role in advancing and sharing knowledge of our world is seen as equally as important.
Membership is likely to be an important focus in the next five years, including enhancing our work regionally. We will also have to carry out some external fabric repairs to Lowther Lodge, particularly the south façade, and there is support for a renewed legacy campaign.
In the current external environment, there is likely to be little more money at our disposal than the £5million income we currently generate annually from membership, enterprise activities, operating activities and fundraising, so engaging in new activities may mean relinquishing some current ones. However, we must ensure we meet our duties as a charity, in serving public benefit, and we may seek to develop further our role as a professional body for practicing geographers.
I encourage Fellows and members of the Society to submit their ideas for the 2017-2021 strategic plan to [email protected] You will also receive a consultation paper in the December Bulletin mailing to comment upon. All ideas will be gratefully received and will be considered as we shape the final proposal to go to the Council in April 2017. I look forward to receiving your comments and ideas.