Staging activities and projects with popular appeal helps foundation trusts boost membership, says Ann McGauran

What is the connection between fish tanks and singing groups? The answer is they have both been used by South London and the Maudsley Foundation Trust as ways of engaging with members of the mental health trust.

We can spend £50,000 and recruit thousands of members, but that’s not the approach we’re interested in taking, not least because we didn’t think this would represent the best use of our resources

There is little point in having a vast number of members if you are not keeping them involved, according to foundation head of communications Dan Charlton.

“We can spend £50,000 and recruit thousands of members, but that’s not the approach we’re interested in taking, not least because we didn’t think this would represent the best use of our resources.”

One innovative scheme allows members to bid for grants of up to £750 for small initiatives of benefit to at least two people who use the trust’s mental health services. Members were invited to bid to help fund projects which would improve the patient experience and promote mental well-being or social inclusion.

Fifty bids were successful in the latest round of the Make Me Smile campaign. One of the trust’s inpatient wards used the money to buy and set up a fish tank and others have arranged activities that include setting up singing groups and organising theatre and cinema trips.

South London and the Maudsley’s board took a decision that membership was not going to be simply “a numbers game”.

Instead, Mr Charlton says, “we were keen to make it an opportunity for people to register their support for mental health, but also get involved in the work of the trust”.

Events are fundamental to this strategy. A summer fair at the historic Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham is used as a chance for members and prospective members to meet staff and patients. While Mr Charlton says it is not the quickest way of recruiting, “it’s a good way of getting people to know more about mental health”.

The foundation also set up a Facebook site over two years ago, “with probably about 230 followers”.

For a lot of trusts, membership recruitment is the last thing would-be foundation trusts think of three months before seeking approval from regulator Monitor, says chair of The Campaign Company Jonathan Upton.

TCC has worked with more than 70 actual and aspiring foundation trusts on membership recruitment, governor training and developing membership into advocates of the trust’s work to the wider community.

Two-way process

Mr Upton says: “The trusts that are successful at getting members take it seriously and recognise the potential of having a body of people out there who can represent people’s views to trusts.”

He is passionate about promoting the process as a “two-way thing”, with members also taking messages from the trust into the community.

He says trusts need to “be careful about waiting too long and having to spend more money on getting members than if they had spent a reasonable amount at the beginning”.

The “reality and evidence” is that very few trusts can get members without professional help, in his view.

Chelsea and Westminster Hospital Foundation Trust holds two main annual events for members and uses TCC recruiters to do a targeted membership recruitment drive in the week leading up to both these events (see box). The trust is also promoting membership alongside its mobile screening clinic’s services on weekend match days at Chelsea Football Club.

Angie Colvin is membership engagement co-ordinator for Harrogate and District Foundation Trust. Three programmes engage with young people and encouraging membership: work experience and work-related learning, the education liaison programme and the young person’s volunteering programme.

Harrogate has an ageing population profile and the trust wants to recruit more younger people, says Ms Colvin, “as these are our future workforce and patients”. She says the engagement programmes are proving extremely successful. The membership recruitment strategy has a limited budget “and therefore the ways in which members are recruited are innovative and varied, tailored to meet the needs of the population”.

Examples of activities include governor-led sessions in the front entrance of the hospital, attendance at community events and school careers evenings.

Head of patient and public involvement at King’s College Hospital Foundation Trust Jessica Bush says her trust is favouring cost-neutral ways of recruiting.

“Very simple recruitment methods are often the most effective. We run a monthly inpatient satisfaction survey, which includes an application form and a flyer about becoming a member,” she says.

Top tips

  • Keep it simple, with a tickbox on the website to get an application form or include a link to the members part of the trust’s website
  • “Piggyback” on inpatient surveys, clinics aimed at hard to reach groups, or other trust initiatives
  • Don’t put membership in a silo - use members to connect with the wider community
  • Segment members when recruiting, for example as “organisers”, in order to invest in people who can become governors, says Jonathan Upton
  • There is “no substitute for going to where people are and asking them to join”, according to TCC

Web toolkit

The Foundation Trust Network launched a web toolkit in March to help foundation trusts, and would-be foundation trusts, recruit and retain members. Once members have signed on to the networks’ website, the toolkit is shown as an option on the contents menu.

Chelsea and Westminster Hospital Foundation Trust – membership figures *

  • 31 March 05   -  3,933
  • 31 March 06  -   9,955
  • 31 March 07  - 13,287
  • 31 March 08 -  13,140
  • 31 March 09  - 15,438
  • current membership (as at mid March 2010) 15,184

*C&W became a foundation trust in October 2006