How Amnesty bounced back from annus horribilis

The human rights organisation has engaged more of its members in its decision-making processes

Strike members of Amnesty demonstrate in November 2012
Strike members of Amnesty demonstrate in November 2012

< This article has been amended; see final paragraph

Amnesty International UK experienced a tumultuous 2013. The organisation faced three strike days and an extraordinary general meeting by members opposing a budget reduction and restructure programme. Its chair, Ciarnan Helferty, also resigned because of a backlash against jokes he made on Twitter.

Sarah O'Grady, a solicitor and trained mediator who became a member of AI's UK section in 2010, thus had a lot to deal with when she was appointed chair in 2013, after two months as deputy chair. But almost four years on, AIUK has bounced back.

O'Grady says two problems she faced from the start were conflict between the board, members and junior staff over the restructuring and reduction programme, and the need to re-establish the board's role in leading the organisation. O'Grady says she also recognised that the board's role needed to be formalised and understood to avoid the disputes with members that had dogged the organisation in previous years.

As deputy chair, O'Grady had helped to appoint members of a governance taskforce, which considered the UK branch's transparency, accountability, constitution and relationship with the international Amnesty movement. But as chair, she says, she prioritised listening and engaging with people across the organisation while the taskforce drew up its recommendations.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations produced a report for the organisation and surveyed members about its governance: 4,213 people responded, of which 89 per cent had never attended the organisation's AGM. "That shouted a big message that a lot of members wanted to engage with the organisation's governance and decision-making but weren't actually doing so," O'Grady says. "I was the chair of the whole organisation, not just for the relatively small number of very committed and valued activists who attended the AGM."

After a few years' work, proposals for reform were brought before the 2016 AGM. It was agreed that previous AGMs had not been distinct enough from the annual conference, and there was a desire to get greater input from the wider membership.

O'Grady says proxy voting changed the behaviour of AGM attendees, especially in reducing their hostility to the board, which was a result of the organisation's problems in 2013. To make proxy voting easier for members, electronic voting was introduced - by the end of the AGM, about 2,500 members had had their say on the board's proposals. Most of the 12 resolutions put forward by the board were passed, with one or two rejected by members because they were perceived to dilute their power too much.

At previous AGMs, the AGM chair, who was not a board member, had made the board sit at the back of the room. When addressing delegates in 2016, O'Grady had the other board members stand on stage with her to underline the board's central role at the organisation. Ultimately, the 2016 AGM was a success with amicable debate about difficult constitutional reforms.

O'Grady, who left at the end of her three-year term last summer, says the organisation is in a much stronger place now, although there are still improvements to be made. She says her background in mediation helped to navigate a tricky period for the organisation.

She says: "It was very important to me that in all my messaging I said this was not about criticising anybody, but looking at the way things were and at things that could be improved and changed. I think that was a part of the success of it - that no-blame culture.

"There are some things about Amnesty that are special, things we should keep, but some other bits are holding us back - where we can be smarter, cheaper and faster, and can focus on our human rights work. It is about having that vision, sharing it and getting people to own it so they can see the benefit of it."

This article originally described Amnesty International UK Section as a charity, but it is non-charitable membership organisation. Amnesty International UK Charitable Trust is the registered charity.

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