VPGGB * #4 - RHS Membership?

Dahlias at the RHS Inner Temple Show - September 2008

There's been quite a lot of debate recently in the blogosphere about the RHS, where it's headed and the value of membership to its members. James has a particularly thoughtful article plus comments over at his award winning Blackpitts blog if you're interested in what's been said so far. It's been a timely discussion for me as my membership is due for renewal in January. NAH purchased it for me 2 years ago as a welcome Christmas gift. Last year I renewed it without a thought, but this year every purchase has to count, so here goes.

Membership cost £41 this year and my benefits according to the RHS are:
  • A monthly magazine (The Garden) rrp @ £4.25 - however, I believe the net value to me is nearer £10, (not RHS' £51) when compared with other subscription bargains like Gardens Illustrated, who discount theirs and give away a free book. I'd also like to know how many non-membership sales there are of this magazine
  • Free admission to the four RHS Gardens - I'll be an infrequent visitor as they are so far away, so no real benefit to me. I also feel the same about the RHS seed scheme - I could probably get the same seed cheaper elsewhere, though I do like the idea of growing something that may have come from Wisley!
  • Free admission to 147 affiliated gardens - 2 of these (Westonbirt and Corsham Court garden) are within 10 miles of here and I usually visit them once a year (I do visit Westonbirt more frequently, but at times when my membership doesn't give me free entry), so I saved £10.50
  • Discounted admission to RHS Shows - I've visited 5 this year, saving £15
  • Discounts on special events - my membership has given me free visits to Jekka McVicar's Herb Farm and my workshop attendance at The Botanic Nursery - a saving of £6
  • 2 other benefits are not exclusive to members, so I feel they don't really count - Garden Advice and Plant Selector information. In addition e-mail updates are optional and tend to be mainly of a marketing nature, so are of minimal benefit
So looking my total benefits (shown in blue above), they have a value of £41.50, just a tiny bit better than break even then when taking my cost of membership (£41) into account. Of course I could have accrued additional benefits by visiting more gardens, events and shows, but I would have needed to spend a lot more cash in order to do so as I would have attended the more expensive shows, events and gardens much further away. I think my level of activity this year is sustainable and has actually made better use of my membership than I did in my first year.
So far, I'm feeling rather neutral about my membership. Perhaps I need to look at this whole thing a different way and ask the question, What does my membership give the RHS?
  • From the latest Annual Report available online, I see I'm one of 372,000 members providing just over half of the RHS' income (total income £20.9 million, membership income £11 million)
  • In effect membership could fund the four RHS gardens (£9.6 million) with a little left over OR fund Science & Learning, Governance and Editorial costs (£8 million) with slightly more left over (NB total expenditure for the year was £17.6 million)
So no membership at all would result in a much smaller organisation unable to meet its stated aims. Also, whilst membership income is substantial, I haven't found any evidence of the RHS using Gift Aid with membership fees (unbelievable!). If this is the case, then my membership money can be made to work so much harder than it does at the moment. In the current economic climate, this must be a priority as I suspect membership numbers may go down this year.

Although I'm unlikely to visit say, Wisley very often, I do like the idea of it being there and I'm sure I'm indirectly benefitting from the RHS trained horticulturalists who look after some of the gardens I do visit. I'm also hoping to gain my RHS Certificate (at least), so I'll be trained to RHS standard myself at some point. I also value the Award of Garden Merit scheme, and I enjoyed being able to contribute in a small way earlier this year by taking part in the radish trial. I also love the Lindley Library and a lot of RHS publications have made their way into my own gardening reference hoard. I make extensive use of the RHS website, in spite of its many drawbacks **. So whilst I could benefit from all of these things as a non-member, I do value them highly enough to feel supporting them via my membership is worthwhile.

However, that doesn't make me a blind follower. This whole debate reminds me of what the National Trust found last year when they surveyed their members. Most of them didn't think of the National Trust as theirs at all, feeling quite removed from their fee and what the Trust does. As a result there's a major project underway to reconnect the membership to Trust relationship. Perhaps the RHS is in a similar position? When I worked at Earthwatch (an environmental charity supporting scientific research) 10 years ago, there was a similar disconnection and it took an awful lot of work to put it right. There needs to better information available on the good work the RHS does - I feel it's poorly communicated at the moment. This needs to be done at both member and non-member levels. Might I suggest a campaign called something like Membership Matters, starting with space for it on the website and in The Garden?

Conclusion: Membership for me is a bargain (but you may feel differently), however the RHS needs to work extremely hard for it to remain that way.

* = VP's Guide to Gardening Bargains
** = Yes, the website has improved visibly over the past few weeks, but there's still a lot of room for improvement. I would dearly love to sit down with the website people for a few hours and make them see how it looks and feels from a real user's viewpoint. I also understand the website is relatively underfunded, perhaps there's an opportunity for the RHS to mobilise the IT savvy part of its membership and provide some web development volunteer opportunities?

Update 15/4/2015: I'm revisiting this post today as Gwenfar has written a similar, very good piece on her reasons why she isn't renewing her membership. They're good and well argued reasons, particularly her remarks on peat and public transport policies. I've looked again at my reasons for staying with the RHS and they still apply.

Since I wrote this post I lobbied the RHS hard about its stance on Gift Aid and it's now available. Membership has gone up, not down and there have been quite a few changes to the magazine and website. There isn't a Membership Matters section, but there is a lot more information on what the RHS does for gardeners nowadays.

It's the second National Gardens Week this week and on Friday there's the first Free Gardens Day. It's not perfect, but I can see evidence of change which answers some of my above criticisms. Now, I must go and find out what happened to the RHS's research into native/non-native plants and pollinators...


  1. I always astonish myself when I enjoy a picture of Dahlias - but the arrangement here is so cheerful that I must like it.

    About the RHS . . .

    When I was growing up, the RHS was, to me, one of the most important institutions in our national life.

    My father seemed to have been a member since . . . Cain and Abel? . . . and the top shelf of his study was one solid row of RHS Journals - nearly all a dull buff colour, very distinguished-looking, changing tone when it got to the more recent (ha!) ones with pictures.

    I'm not a member of the RHS but the very mention of questioning its merit . . . it feels as if someone is questioning the value of the House of Lords, um . . .

    You know, something that has to be questioned from time to time (even radically altered) but the thought makes one quake a little, despite one's better, sensible, more rational, nature.


  2. Hi Esther - I'm so glad you raised this. The RHS is the kind of organisation that you just 'feel' needs to be supported doesn't it? But so much has been written about it lately (and I was also questioning whether I wanted to continue to support it via membership or another way) that I felt I needed to add to the current debate.

    All institutions need to be questioned, so I'm glad the blogosphere is having a debate about the RHS. A discussion is needed and hopefully a better organisation will result. No matter how good it is in the first place there's always room for improvement.

    I could have written a whole lot more, but this article was overlong to begin with (I did think about splitting it into 2). I could go on a whole lot more about the research the RHS does. As someone with a science background (even wearing the hat of scientist on occasion), I really do value the research the RHS does. And much of this isn't really visible to most people yet. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops!

  3. Me again.

    Just wanted to add that I felt no-one I've seen who's written so far has written about this from the viewpoint of the ordinary member (except in Comments), nor had the question 'What does membership give the RHS'? been examined from a member's viewpoint, so I felt I could add to the debate rather than just echoing what's been said already.

    Also, I do have some ideas of what can be done, so I wanted to share them. Perhaps a better way of doing this would be with the RHS directly rather than here on my blog, so if anyone can suggest the best RHS contact for this, I'll be happy to do so.

  4. Food for thought here VP. I am also the recipient of RHS membership through a Christmas gift which will be coming up for renewal soon. I have not considered what the benefits have been to me over the last twelve months, so will do so and report back. However, as you suggest, a sense of ownership is important for members of any society, whether it be the local gardening club or a much larger group. It is so important that the RHS keeps this in mind.

  5. I think this is a really brilliant piece, and I love the way you've written it and how you've investigated how much it saved you. Amazing. I'm glad you didn't divide it in two - when someone writes really well about something serious, it is no trouble at all to read a "long" post.

    i think this debate is set to run and run. I get in free to everything because of journalist media card, so my membership of the RHS is purely to get the magazine, which I totally consider worth the £40 - I'm intrigued to see that you completely don't.

    V interesting. and thought-provoking xx

  6. Anna - I hope this post is helpful for you to make your own mind up.

    Emmat - Why thank you :) I plumped for the 1 article in the end because I thought if people had given up at the natural split point (when I look at what membership does for the RHS), they probably wouldn't be interested in a follow up article anyway.

    Good point re the magazine value. I still don't think it's worth £4.25rrp (which is more than the other gardening magazines) and I don't find it such a good read as GI, but it's better than most. And I did find myself going through the latest mag last night circling a few articles to keep, which I don't usually do. So perhaps I am a bit harsh with my net £10 valuation.

  7. The RHS has survived 200 years. My Great Grandfather was a member. OK so that is not a reason to join but for me it is the RHS’s research into Pest and disease that is so important. For the home gardener this is going to become seriously important. They are one of the only organisations actually carrying out research that is accessible to the amateur . I have first hand knowledge of sending photographs and specimens of a very ill tree. The information I received from Wisley was invaluable. The said tree is now thriving.

    Regarding the Magazine. It has changed over the past few years, I think it now falls between two stools it is for neither the beginner nor the enthusiast For me it is totally boring but my membership is valid for the research that is being carried out. May it help us save our plants for our children’s children. I also enjoy visiting the special nursery days where one can learn so much for the nurserymen and women who actual passionately grow their plants.

    May we all support the RHS for the future of our gardens


  8. Hi Propagator - welcome and thanks for Following! Thanks also for adding to the debate. I too value the research the RHS does and I'm glad that it's something that you value from your membership. I still believe a lot of gardeners aren't really aware of this important aspect of what the RHS does though.

    I still think there's room for improvement in any organisation and I'm glad I shook out my membership in public and found it's a worthwhile organisation to continue to support.

    Back to what Emma said - most of my ex-colleagues will instantly recognise that I'm still using my business analyst skills when I wrote this piece! :)

  9. Is there anyone out there who used to be an RHS member, but isn't any longer, or has considered membership and decided not to join?

    It would be good to hear from you too and to understand why.

    And RHS - how many memberships lapse per year? And what's the trend? Do you know why?

  10. A very interesting post, VP. I must admit I've considered membership and decided not to join - not as a final, I'll never join sort of decision, but more as a not at the moment sort of decision. From the point of view of what I get out of it, I'm already a member of Garden Organic, the National Trust, English Heritage, the RSPB, and a number of other organisations, and therefore I already get more magazines than I have time to read (as well as getting my parents' RHS magazines when they've finished with them). I also get free entry to a lot of gardens (including all the RHS ones), as well as nature reserves, and historic buildings, and I have a 2 for 1 card from my subscription to GW magazine which lets me into quite a lot more gardens half price. So RHS membership wouldn't be giving me very much at all, and I'd just be joining for the sake of supporting them. From this point of view, I feel that I'm already supporting Garden Organic, and if I have to choose one gardening organisation to support I'd rather go for GO because they seem to stand more for my sort of gardening (I've enlarged on this in my comment on James's post on the same subject).

  11. Hi Juliet - thanks for joining in and explaining why you've not joined. Luckily I've got no such overlap with the many organisations I belong to, but I did look closely just to make sure when I researched this post.

  12. Without wishing to open old wounds, you may be interested to hear that the RHS directors are hosting an online Q&A session on January 20. You can find out more by going to www.rhs.org.uk/news/onlinequestions.asp

  13. Hi Geoff - thanks for visiting! I saw the piece in next month's 'The Garden' and I'm pleased it's happening as it'll give us a chance to do something instead of just having a good old moan on our blogs!

    I'll be writing a post to publicise it in the New Year.


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