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:
- 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.
- 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:
- what they expected when they joined the TS
- whether their expectations were met
- why they are leaving
- 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.