How to get more members in the Theosophical Society (Adyar)

In response to a post by MKR to Theos-talk who has been saying he would have liked the topic of membership decline discussed openly at the world congress. (July 22nd 2010)

I think everybody knows that the TS has faced a downward membership trend since the 1930s. What can the study of statistics do to add to that?

As for the New Zealand section: no new general secretary can be expected to reverse membership trends very quickly. After all, merely slowing down the decline, means that people who die are replaced more often. If you do want to do statistics, compare the speed of membership decline & look at whether the speed of membership decline is slowing.

This is true on any level: from lodge to section to international.

As for the Indian TS: it is in a unique situation:

  1. Membership dues are low enough that poor Indians can afford to pay them. Middle class Indians can pay life membership dues without having to even think about it: that’s how large a divide there is between rich and poor in India.
  2. In India becoming a TS member is at least part a nationalistic statement: India as the mother of all religion and all that.

Combine the two and it’s no surprise that the Indian section has grown a bit, instead of shrunk. What IS a surprise is that such a large proportion of members voted in the last election. I’m told it’s due simply to the fact that on every level TS officials made a LOT of effort to get people to vote. That was certainly not done in the Dutch TS.

But now for some constructive things: in order to change things it’s not going to help to talk about how sad it is that the membership numbers are going down. The TS is clearly missing the boat here and we need to figure out why. We don’t need our leaders to tell us why: collectively we probably know far more than our general secretaries do.

In each section there’s its own dynamics. In the US we know that there are new members coming in, however there is a huge turnover. What that tells me is that the TS in the US has their PR thing going well, they just don’t offer what people need in order to stay. So the TS in the US should do a survey amongst those leaving to figure out:

  1. what they expected when they joined the TS
  2. whether their expectations were met
  3. why they are leaving
  4. what would make them stay

In other sections, the Dutch one for instance, it’s not so much that people leave, but that they die (which can’t be helped) and new members aren’t coming in. So the Dutch section has decided to invest into PR more. Now that may not be enough: PR without a serious look at the work in the TS is a one-sided approach. Still, it at least addresses one of the issues the TS faces.

The Dutch TS could also do with more surveys to figure out what members and those on the list of ‘interested people’ expect of the activities for instance, if they’re happy about them, what they want to see different etc. The same with the magazine and website.

As I said earlier: Vicente Hao Chin was really the only one coming near to this sort of thing in his talk. But he started a level earlier, wanting each of us, and each section, to think about two or three things they think are essential to the Theosophical Society. What do we want people in the world to associate us with? For instance, people associate Zen with meditation, not with the Bodhisattva Vow. The Dalai Lama is associated with Tibet and peace, not with Buddhist scholarship.

If we don’t come up with something and use that in our presentation of ourselves to the world, the world will choose things and it will be hard to change that. That’s the situation we’re in obviously: the world associates us with the 19th century for instance. How can we change that? What do we want the world to associate us with? We need to get to a consensus. Outside the TS in the Philippines we have not even started that conversation – though come to think of it, I did try and bring up something of the sort in the Dutch TS. Whether I was successful is another matter.

8 thoughts on “How to get more members in the Theosophical Society (Adyar)”

  1. We do need to have more international discussion about the membership issue. That may be happening privately among the national section secretaries as well as in online communities. None of the national sections has a spectacular percentage of the general population who are members, although some are certainly doing better than others. Active, healthy lodges and study groups are among the best means of retaining members once they join, but as you said, each nation has its own dynamics.

    In the United States, the Theosophical Society in America operates in a culture where membership and participation in nonprofit groups is a way of life for most people. Nonprofits fulfill many functions that in Europe are handled by governmental agencies. The demands are ceaseless to donate time and money, and there is a lot of turnover in most organizations as people ‘s interests and needs change. In my immediate family, for example, over the last 25 years we have been active in numerous organizations including TSA, a church, a Waldorf school, Habitat for Humanity, Save the Prairie, a motorcycle group, Toys for Tots, a neighborhood group, a book club, a musical group, veterans’ support groups, and more. That is apart from groups whom we have supported merely by donating money. Americans do experience stress from all these types of activities and our complicated lives. Many of us cannot readily enter into another activity as demanding as being a member of a Theosophical lodge when we are already doing much that is meaningful in our lives and useful to our communities. In the twenty-first century that trend is likely to continue, so boosting TSA membership may not increase much.

    As for the idea of surveys, you may not be aware of the extent to which the TSA has already been using them. For years we issued questionnaires to new members near the end of their first year, and virtually never received responses. Recently the readers of our Quest magazines were surveyed about their preferences, with the option of responding online or in print. We also initiated the Visioning Project, which began with an intensive workshop at Krotona with Joy Mills and other leaders, followed up with an online survey. One of our Board members is writing a report that will appear in our next Messenger newsletter. Here is a link to the information that was posted on our web page until recently: . You may be interested to look over the pdf of the questionnaire that was used.

    Another matter that should be up for discussion is simply: why is it important for people to become members of a Theosophical Society? Some of the best Theosophists I have known were not members. They were not “joiners” or were shy or did not want to declare their affiliation publicly or were put off by the politics or were very poor. For that reason, it seems extremely important to me for us to emphasize our free, anonymous online offerings, as well as our publications and public lectures.

    I would also like to assess the impact of the Adyar Society in ways unrelated to membership numbers. Do more people accept concepts like reincarnation and karma? Do more people use meditation and energy work to make themselves whole? Are more religious groups engaging in interfaith activities? I believe that many little seeds we have planted for 135 years are steadily growing and bearing fruit. While I would love for more people to stand up and declare themselves to be Theosophists, I can live without that affirmation as long as we can keep subtly spreading the influence of the Ancient Wisdom.

    1. Great to hear that the TS in the US is doing all that. I was certainly not aware of it, nor in this much detail of the social circumstances in the TS. Thanks for the extra information.

      What I’m not sure of is to what extent the lodges in the US are being helped by the general section the way they used to be.

      Other than that – sure, membership isn’t the only thing. And in part it’s about what we think the TS needs to provide to the world. Is it ideas? If so – then the US TS is doing fabulously well with it’s Quest Books. Certainly no need to improve that area of work.

      I think the TS is also a place for serious conversation, learning from each other etc. Sure, that may never be a big deal – but I am pretty sure we can do a better job at that than we’re doing.

  2. I’m not so sure TS focus should be so concerned about membership numbers.
    Better value would be focus on ‘quality’ membership as opposed to mere numbers.
    Time spent nurturing individuals who find their way to TS would result in that quality membership.

    I speak from experience. Took me very many years to personally ‘work out’ what TS is really all about… may never have happened had I not reached out and got involved with the wider membership outside of local lodge life.

    Exposure to knowledgeable theosophists was the main key that unlocked the door to my personal growth, whilst ‘non theosophical savvy members’ were the other side of the coin who might have seen me fly the coop had I not been so fortunate to get the balance. Mentors in the brotherhood got me over the ‘tests’ to my continued membership.

    I may have saved years of time had I been in a lodge which paid some attention to basic theosophical programmes. I do believe many who ‘rightfully’ belong in TS don’t waste so much of their precious time. Unfortunately, but that is a fact of life today….very busy.

    Experienced (in theosophy) members can provide bullet points of teachings for busy people who come their way which can make a great difference to their life, or direction.

    I believe it incumbent on individual lodges to be governed by members who know theosophy and it’s purpose as well as a moral obligation of Sections leadership to hold individual lodges accountable in that regard. Otherwise, membership is short changed. Observation within N Z reveals branches who provide core study in basic TS principles produce ‘real theosophists’ in their membership. One of those is worth dozens of others in terms of usefulness to TS in an evolving world.

    TS has the most broad and credible knowledge base of information on offer anywhere. Members whose mental faculties are able to ‘get it’ usually effect great change in their own personal lives as well as those around them. A person who has become ‘a theosophist’ more than simply a member of TS cannot help having growth and transformations of some kind. Study is the key to activating the neurons productively.

    When individuals own needs are met, most cannot help themselves from reaching out to others in the world in some serviceable way…. it does not necessarily have to involve being a recruitment officer for TS membership either. Again, we can cite Vic Hao Chin from the Philippines as an example….his own growth as a knowledgeable member has led to extraordinary worldworks….

    personal self transformation programmes used by people throughout the whole world; schools educating students in a more appropriate way for these evolutionary times; (staffed by faculty who have been through the self transformation programmes with the result they are more effective teachers etc.)
    This is only 2 of the worldworks coming out of Philippines section.
    Why? Because their General Secretary knows his Theosophy and uses it in service.

    From that example we can all learn.
    Quality members = Quality programmes = Quality results = Quality world?

    Number of members is not the issue to address….Quality membership is in my opinion.

    1. Hi Maureen,

      I do agree that’s one of the issues we need to discuss: is membership numbers something we need to focus on? Underlying question: what is the main role the TS ought to be playing on the world scene?

  3. People I already know the answer to these things as to why membership fails in the USA
    and perhaps in the West. In fact since I live near the National headquarters in Wheaton I have been aware and have studied Theosophy for decades and I have long since known and debated these Ideas on membership with then president Dora Kunz.
    Let me know if you are prepared for the answer

    Mike PS. I want to thank you so much for bringing this everyone’s attention

  4. Hi everybody,
    I’m glad I’ve found you, ’cause being a registered member (TS ADYAR in Germany and TS in Germany, Franz Hartmann branch) I’m concerned with this topic as well. What I do learn in here is the situation seems to be quite similar worldwide. It’s a little bit paradox, on one hand we have one of the finest philosophies running for universal brotherhood with one of the richest literature and on the other we find lots of people who like to hear themselves talking rather more than getting in progress. The forums on the internet e.g. just don’t work…they don’t lead to no results as long as they’re used as playgrounds for egotism of a handful self-learned ones and those who would do better having a therapist. And this brings my criticism to its essence…which I call “the slandering between the generations”. Did you ever ask yourself why R.B. still is president, or why it’s always the same old heads in groups and lodges or at summer schools running for having their word spread in lectures…why do those long time theosophists hardly take no criticism, but are the first in the row always setting things straight…oh, yeah, for sure…’cause they are that much enlightened?! No one looking for brotherhood and community if not to say higher goals wants to have this kinda attitude around him and then paying them with his annual fees as well. One of the first things I got to learn was an attendee at a summer meeting telling me discretely “You won’t find any friends in here!” — I hate to say it, but she was right, ’cause a lot of so called theosophists lack a great deal of character using TS groups for their own selfishness. It’s like all bad energies that had been running against TS since day 1 has become a reflection of just the same type from the inside. Even though this is just a point of view we have to deal with those unpleasant facts, for which are as normal as referring to HPB anytime we need an authority to justify our weakness without admitting to it. This is not theosophy, this is merely a bad habit to get rid of…and at least this won’t bring any new members to TS what branch ever. We have to focus much more upon tolerance, leaving aside prejudice and we need to look for concrete co-operations…and we have to deal much more open minded with the past, ’cause we won’t be having more (paying) members as long as we hideaway the negativ, which had been causing such an immense impact upon TS history and its foundations. When we balance darkness and light the public will take notice of TS being a society much more able making its principles agenda to a new era and its philosophy worth a living concept for the future. Once we have stepped out of this political left-right trap of the past, and once the old is passed away including our materialistic mind-set with its essence being transformed by the requirements of our higher self things will get back to progress even for theosophy itself. — Brotherly regards from Germany

    1. The ‘you won’t find friends here’ remark rings true, but I do think I have made a few friendships in the TS that may survive my recent disenchantment.

      It’s not as if membership dues are filling anybodies pockets, btw. I’m not aware of any issues in that direction. Sure, a few people get paid minimum wage for the work they do, but Radha for instance lives off her own wealth and doesn’t get paid.

      However, if the TS keeps shrinking and frightening people like me away, I’m sure financial scandals will start coming up as reliable people stop doing the work. Users and criminals will get a field day.

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