Guest Q&A | From membership to citizenship – driving engagement in the coronavirus age

Dan Linstead , 28 May 2020

If your members can’t visit your sites, meet your people, come to events or physically volunteer for you – how do you offer them value, and encourage loyalty? And what would a more sustainable kind of support look like? To discuss this, we reached out to Irenie Ekkeshis, co-founder of ‘participation consultancy’ the New Citizenship Project.


The coronavirus lockdown has brought fresh urgency to questions of transactional vs emotional loyalty for membership organisations. With sites closed and events cancelled, content in print and digital channels has never been more important to maintain relationships. But is this also an opportunity to reframe the relationship with supporters entirely, and try to move beyond purely ‘value for money’ metrics towards something deeper and more sustainable?

New Citizenship Project is a consultancy we’ve long been following with interest – they’ve been promoting and advising on a new model of member engagement since 2014, and are now seeing their ideas go viral. We caught up with co-founder Irenie Ekkeshis to explore their ideas.

Hi Irenie. Your organisation focuses on encouraging a new kind of citizenship – how do you define citizenship?

For us, the Citizen is an idea that brings with it the freedom not just to choose between the options offered to us; but also to play an active, creative role in shaping what those options are. It’s about a greater agency, and a greater responsibility: no longer do we tell ourselves that we are capable only of judging what is best for ourselves, as individuals, right now; instead we must all step up and have a say about what is best for society as a whole.

So we don’t mean citizenship or being a citizen in the legal sense – hence ‘new’ citizenship. When we’re talking about citizens, we mean people; and when we’re talking about organisations treating people like citizens we’re asking them to recognise that people can and want to shape the society they live in. They want to feel they have the agency to contribute and be involved, not just to transact with or buy from the organisation. We often say when you treat people as consumers then the only thing they can do is buy from you. When you treat them as citizens there’s a whole range of ways they can participate with you in achieving your purpose or mission. That has the potential to be very powerful.

Translating this for membership organisations, what’s the difference between a member and a citizen?

I think the better question is what’s the difference between a member that’s treated as a citizen and a member that’s only treated as a consumer.  If the only relationship a consumer can have with an organisation is a transactional one – they buy something and if they feel it’s worth it they may remain a customer – this plays out in high membership churn rates if people don’t feel they’ve had value for money. But when you treat members as citizens, you invite them to get closer to the organisation and its core purpose. A member who is treated as a citizen is actively encouraged to help shape the organisation; and to contribute in a variety of ways to the organisation’s ultimate impact in the world.

How can we encourage members to become more actively involved?

At the moment most membership organisations invite participation through quite superficial means, for example tweeting using a hashtag as part of a predefined campaign, donating money to allow the organisation to do their important work, or providing feedback.

At the other end of the spectrum, some invite deep and time-intensive participation, usually aimed at a smaller ‘civic core’  group through more traditional means, for example volunteering or participating on boards and committees. But there are myriad ways that people can get involved which are more meaningful than tweeting and less time intensive than being a board member. We developed ‘7 modes of Everyday Participation’ with the cooperative/mutual sector (including The Coop Group and Nationwide)  to help guide organisations on what other things they can actually do to invite more meaningful involvement from members and others. There are lots of great examples of organisations using these modes within the Everyday Participation toolkit.

Does the idea of citizenship threaten the financial model of membership which supports many organisations?

Membership is essential to thriving organisations. We’re advocating for strengthened, meaningful membership relationships which stand the test of time, because the opportunities to be involved are relevant, sustained and help achieve the organisation’s impact. We also happen to believe that participatory membership can help grow membership numbers, reduce churn and therefore the organisation’s revenue. In fact, the ‘participation premium’ has been proven to multiply the returns of many factors including loyalty, revenue and price, so it’s not an either/or for us.

Coronavirus has put the transactional benefits of many memberships on hold. What should organisations be doing now for their members to build loyalty long-term?

We believe that membership relationships which are built around a shared sense of purpose and a belief that this purpose can only be achieved with each other are the ones that will  sustain through this period of difficulty. There’s no need to apologise for not being physically open – members understand why. What if this period also presented an opportunity to reflect with members on how to achieve their purpose and impact in the light of likely ongoing physical distancing? What if it presented the chance to shape new ways of achieving your purpose and impact together? Of course the crisis is unprecedented and there are challenging times ahead. But lots of people are talking about how we can build back better. Membership relationships are a great place to start with this (and we can help!)

Can virtual transactions (which we are all doing loads of) be as powerful as real-world ones (which are currently off-limits)?

We’d say virtual interactions rather than virtual transactions. Asking for help, support, ideas and other contributions can be incredibly powerful. It’s not a membership example, but remember when Pret CEO Clive Schlee took to twitter to ask customers how to encourage more people to use reusable coffee cups rather than disposable ones? He was inundated with responses, ideas, suggestions and constructive comments. How many questions like this could membership organisations work through with their members right now? How might that drive a sense of community and belonging?

Understandably, coronavirus is currently boosting support for frontline causes – the NHS, children, elderly, homeless. How can organisations with other purposes – from overseas aid to arts and culture – maintain relevance and support against this backdrop?

This period has been termed ‘The Great Pause’,  and with that comes time for reflection about what’s important to us all. Grayson Perry’s Art Club on Channel 4 has shown how important art and creative expression are in helping  us cope with lockdown. Quarantine has also somehow increased the relevance of the culture sector  by opening it up to a wider audience; over 200,000 people tuned in to watch the National Theatre’s live stream of One Man, Two Guvnors on You Tube – the equivalent of 224 sold-out performances at the theatre where it was staged.

There is a growing appreciation of and support for the safer streets our children are playing in and the re-emergence of nature and wildlife in our towns and cities.  Whilst in the moment of acute crisis it’s understandable that these ‘frontline’ issues get more of the focus and attention, we also believe the great pause has given us all time to consider the kind of society we might want to build in the future. Organisations that have articulated a clear sense of purpose and opened up the opportunity for members to achieve it with them should be well placed to grow and draw in broader support as we build back post crisis.

Finally – we all want to capture people’s hearts and minds. But beyond a passionate minority of supporters, aren’t most of our choices and affiliations ultimately driven by some kind of personal gain?

Social psychology research demonstrates that when you communicate with people only as consumers they are less likely to be socially and environmentally motivated: they behave in ways which are about seeking out the best deal for themselves and in the short term. But when you communicate with people as citizens, those levels of social and environmental motivation increase.

If I feel the organisation I am a member of has a clear mission that I can also be a part of, I can of course receive and use certain transactional benefits, but right up alongside these I also value my affiliation to the organisation, and the contribution I’m invited to make. This is why we argue for participatory membership which blends transactional and emotional benefits.

Irenie Ekkeshis is the Co-Founder and Director of New Citizenship Project, a participation innovation consultancy that works with organisations of all types to create participatory strategies and innovations. Their clients include the RSPB, the Soil Association, Historic England and The Guardian.

Case Studies

Sign up for email updates