Opinion: Why the dreaded AGM can be of benefit

Peter Cardy

I've taken part in 35 AGMs at the charities I've worked for, but I never stop worrying about them - and not without reason. Have you ever noticed how hard it is, in a large hall, to spot individuals from the podium? In one charity, identifying the faces really mattered because each branch representative held all the votes for their members - you needed to know which individuals had the voting power to pass or scupper a proposal.

The most bizarre AGMs were those of an educational charity whose constitution focused maximum effort on procedure and thereby prevented any decisions being made at all.

Many of its members were trade union activists who knew the power of a point of order and the amended amendment to the substantive resolution.

The most unpleasant were those of a health-related charity where the volunteers loathed the staff and the distaste was generously returned.

Turning so much anger inwards had disabled large parts of the charity - but things did improve.

With a large membership, even the formal, statutory AGM is hugely expensive, but the marginal costs of doing more interesting things can generate a lot of benefit. It offers an opportunity to interact with the most active members and to invite them to feel part of the organisation rather than just observers. It also gives them the chance to shape the charity for which they work with scant acknowledgement.

At our recent meeting, the ITN newscaster Nicholas Owen presented a long afternoon segment, making light of his own encounter with cancer. His personal and professional gift is to bring out, from people who think they're just ordinary, the extraordinary inner resources they find in the teeth of bitter adversity.

In the formal AGM, I tend to sit dazzled by spotlights in a darker concert hall, trying to anticipate the unexpected. This year, it wasn't too difficult, so instead I worried whether there was enough participation. I shouldn't have, because interaction takes place in many different ways - from business questions and the applause at fundraising to the awed silence at stoicism in the face of terrible suffering.

Suddenly I felt much better about the weeks of preparation and the cost of housing, feeding and informing all these people. They came because they care about our charity and who we work for. If they didn't like what is being done in their name, they would say so. But they seem to like it - a lot.

- Peter Cardy is chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief.

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