Speaker profile: Jon Alexander on members as citizens, not consumers

Jon founded New Citizenship Project in 2014. His ultimate goal is to replace 'consumer' with 'citizen' as the main role of the individual in society.  

This Q&A took place ahead of Jon's session on Exploring the Future of Membership at the Practitioners Forum on 19 November (2015).

Q: Can you give us a brief description of New Citizenship Project and what it aims to achieve?
A: The New Citizenship Project is really a kind of innovation company - but one with a real cause at its heart. We're all about using the skills of the creative industries (which is where, in our various ways, we've all come from) to inspire people to participate in society as citizens, rather than flogging stuff to people as consumers. Our big hairy goal is to help shift the dominant story of the individual in society from consumer to citizen.

Q: What is the difference between the consumer and the citizen? And where do ‘consumers with a conscience’ fit in?
A: There's a load of really fascinating social psychology research which gets at this question really deeply. Essentially, what this suggests is that "the consumer" as an idea and as language prompts in people the notion that the right thing for us to do is to get the best deal for ourselves, measured primarily in material standards of living, in the short term, as narrowly defined individuals. The language and ideas of citizenship, on the other hand, are much more about active participation, moral agency, and community.  As for "consumers with conscience"...  the short and provocative answer is they don't exist. The texture behind that is that there is a really important distinction between noun and verb: when we use the noun "consumer" we're creating huge problems for ourselves.  Ethical consumption exists; ethical consumers are a paradox. This matters, because chasing the chimera of ethical consumerism has made us ignore the fact that there is a way bigger question we should be asking - not what should we buy, but what role should we play in society?

Q: Members are central to all successful co-operatives. How can co-operatives increase engagement with their members?
A: That's a pretty big question to try to answer in a blog post - and if I did it, no one would have to come to our session!  The starting point, though, is to articulate very clearly the purpose of the organisation, and then ask yourself how you can offer people creative and fun opportunities to participate in that purpose. That's very different from standard marketing practice, which is to articulate the unique selling point, and then ask yourself what you can flog to people. Of course, this is much more comfortable territory for co-operatives than most organisations, but I think there's a huge amount of territory your organisations can reclaim if you have the confidence to be who you really are at root, and not just play by the rules of the badly structured masses.

Q: Can you give examples of one of your most successful ‘creative projects’. And in what ways could a creative project be used by a co-op to increase member participation? 
A: Personally, the work I've done I'm most proud of is the National Trust campaign '50 Things To Do Before You're 11 3/4'. It's a really powerful example of what happens when you ask what your organisation can do to serve a purpose - in this instance reconnecting children and nature - rather than simply selling a product; and we did some great things at the NT to offer people ways to get involved in shaping and championing this cause.  There are innumerable creative projects that could be conceived by co-operatives to increase participation - not least just opening up and asking members to design the membership product with you and for you. But again I'll save a little of my thunder if you don't mind!