Elizabeth Balgobin: You need more than tea and biscuits to host a good AGM

The AGM is the one time each year when the board is on show in all its glory, writes our columnist

Elizabeth Balgobin
Elizabeth Balgobin

So did you make it onto the coveted list? It's that season again, when every email and stiff envelope might be an invitation to an annual general meeting. The anticipation and excitement you feel knows no bounds and your sense of disappointment, when that invitation fails to arrive, is palpable.

Sound familiar? I thought not. Most likely, you open the email or envelope, sigh and ignore it. You see where it's being held and who the guest speaker is, and check out whether there will be tea or wine. As a member of several organisations and a networker, you know you should make the effort to attend.

And therein lies the problem: the round of AGMs can feel like a chore - not just for you but for those of us organising and holding them.

Some organisations no longer bother - they ticked the box to dispense with the meeting altogether. Others hold a technical version as part of the usual round of board gatherings. But there is a die-hard core that holds on to the AGM as the one opportunity to bring stakeholders together, give them a biscuit and something wet, and tell them what the organisation has been up to.

This is the one time each year when the board is on show in all its glory. Members are asked to stand up and explain what they have achieved and what they plan to achieve in the year ahead. They set out how they have spent money, whether there will be any major operational changes and how viable the organisation is.

The big challenge is to make that interesting. A membership organisation will probably have an election of some sort to renew its board - and we all love the suspense that brings, don't we? Some organisations do drum up excitement when a bona fide election takes place and there is a winner and a loser. But most spend a couple of months cajoling people to stand for election and hoping that board members who are not due to retire will be able to remain.

The local infrastructure body Navca had some good hooks this year: the first AGM with Joe Irvin as the chief executive; Mike Martin's last time as chair; Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, providing witty and wise words; and a big motion to debate. They had wine and canapes too. Perfect.

Voice4Change also had its AGM last month. Although no big elections took place, we aimed to have an interesting discussion about the state of equalities in the country, focusing on the government and the experience of our members. It was a reckoning of what we've achieved in the past year and how we plan to operate in the year ahead.

We had a discussion about the AGM at our board meeting. It was then that we signed off the accounts and decided we were strong enough to go ahead and recruit a new director. We also concluded that we should simplify our election process and that, this year, some board members would stand down.

Our constitution says we must hold an AGM. But we also wanted to spend time with our members and give them a stimulating experience. Like many organisations, however, we usually struggle to reach our quorum. It is not just that it is the busy season for conferences. Nor is it that we are a national organisation that requires people around the UK to struggle to find the time and funds to attend. Rather, there is that collective sigh when invitees see the words 'annual,' 'general' and 'meeting' together.

We all know this, so we minimise the AGM part of the event to draw people to our symposium, conference, workshop, reception or other linked event. And yet the business of the AGM is what good governance is all about: publicly holding yourself to account and opening the doors, windows and fire escapes to criticism and praise.

I have set myself the challenge of planning the 2013 AGM in January. At each board meeting in the course of the year I will raise the subject: my target is to achieve a fully attended annual general meeting this time next year without having to resort to a last-minute ring-round of our members.

Elizabeth Balgobin is chair of Voice4Change England and a charity governance consultant

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