There is a way out, but it will involve changes more radical than anyone cares to admit
It doesn’t have to be this way. The institution can have a relevant, maybe even a prominent, place in the profession. There is one big fat caveat though: volunteers need to realise that they can’t just solve it by starting another initiative or another campaign.
Realising this is harder than it sounds. The volunteer instinct is to instigate change by launching a new endeavour. Sometimes it works: for all its shortcomings, GINI has done quite well with connecting Student Branches. But a formal initiative would be counterproductive to the sort of change our institution needs to see. The way forward will involve the suppression of every thread of that volunteer instinct.
This series was about attitude. No President or Board of Directors will be able to move a 400,000-large mass to revise their conception of professionalism. Grass-roots volunteers will need to lead by example. The change needs to be in the principles behind their approach to member benefits, and it needs to start with a deep self-examination by volunteers themselves.
Change starts here
Firstly, volunteers need to think much harder about what they seek to achieve by running events. It is easy to fall into traps. “Raising awareness”—particularly of benefits, but also of altruistic issues—is weak, and is not a member benefit (unless they were already aware of the issue beforehand and wanted to pay to learn more about it).
A similar trap is “networking”, which is admirable but pointless as an end in itself. People don’t go out of their way for the sake of meeting people. They meet with others who share a common interest or objective, and “networking” naturally arises from that.
Events and activities need to be real member benefits. They need to actively contribute to members’ professional, technical or personal development—which, coincidentally, happens to be what most members say (but not always act like) they expect from institutions. These are the hardest events to organise, because they often require accomplished people to run them. But there is less point in social events and awareness drives than many volunteers admit.
Secondly, volunteers need to stop thinking about themselves. “I volunteered and got a free trip to Hong Kong” is not a reason to join an institution. Their job is to help their members in their professional careers, not to encourage some notion of an IEEE career.
Thirdly, we need to be willing to accept that high-value activities that do contribute to our own development cost money. Bluntly, we need to spend more—and we need to spend it ourselves. It makes no sense for volunteers and engineers to continually talk about a world of “benefits” that all come for free on payment of a nominal administrative fee. While fiscal prudence is important, volunteers’ primary stress shouldn’t be on making ends meet. They should be prepared to charge for events at-cost, and members who believe it will be useful should be prepared to pay for that.
Fourthly, the institution needs to get over the idea that the IEEE (or IET or IPENZ) is for everyone. It’s not. It’s about the belief that engineering plays a collective, useful, highly-skilled role in society, and that an institution helps us to maintain that. It’s an organisation for people who care about their careers and want to advance them. Volunteers need to be comfortable expressing that value and attempting to convince their peers that they should adopt the value too.
In fact, even that might be too prescriptive: more fundamentally, volunteers should ask themselves whether they’ve given any real thought to what idea underlies the IEEE for them.
Shifting the earth? No, just a way of thinking
This will not be easy. This is not about ambition, and no one person can “champion” the changes in attitude of this scale. Indeed, some may point out, validly, that this would be paramount to reversing an entire institutional culture.
When situations are dire, though, that’s what it takes. Volunteers have been scratching their heads for far too long about why they struggle to convince engineers to take the institution seriously. The answer is not that difficult: it is because the institution, unless you’re a volunteer, can’t be taken seriously. With a change in culture, maybe that can change too.