In the Co-op world June marks AGM season. AGM’s are where the Senior Leadership teams of Co-ops report back to their members. There are elections to replace Board Members and the future of the Co-op is discussed. 2020 AGM season was different from normal. Usually, AGM’s are held in a room with people physically in the same room. That’s not possible in Covid 19 times meaning that AGM’s had to be held remotely, in most cases via Zoom. I’ve attended as a member of numerous Co-ops and have been involved in running a couple. Virtual AGM’s are very different experiences to AGM’s with rooms full of people. I think there are a couple of positives in holding virtual AGM’s and one big drawback. I’ll detail them below.
Positive number one. Higher attendances
The biggest positive from the virtual AGM season was that because the meetings were not bound by geography, the attendances were much higher than usual AGM’s. Some of the Co-op AGM’s that I usually attend are just about quorate because the board are present. With AGMs. moving online, people who may not have attended under normal circumstances attended AGMs. In the Community Energy Birmingham AGM and the Birmingham Film Co-op AGM that I was involved in organising I saw faces that had not previously attended these organisations AGMs before. The attendances were much higher than in the years prior. I’d say that the attendances were double that than the year previous. Some members may not want to travel to an AGM but would be willing to participate from their home, especially under Lockdown conditions where you might be home anyway. I am the Minutes Secretary for Community Energy Birmingham. Taking minutes online was incredibly easy. I was able to amend the Agenda as the meeting transpired for the minutes. Once the Community Energy Birmingham AGM was over, it took me ten minutes to finish the Minutes.
Other AGMs that I attended as a member were very well run. I’d never been to a Co-op Group AGM before but I was able to watch it online on Youtube. The Co-op Group AGM was seen by a whole load of people who would not attend in normal circumstances. A lot of members won’t travel to Manchester for The Co-op Group AGM, myself included, but were happy to watch online. I watched the Co-op Press AGM via a Zoom Webinar, where I was elected to the Co-op Press Board. Central England Co-op held a Members Meeting rather than an AGM and that was a success after initial teething problems. 1400 members watched the Central England Co-op Members Meeting. Member engagement was higher across the Co-ops mentioned than the usual physical AGM’s, which leads onto positive number two.
Positive number 2. Stronger democracy
I’ve attended a number of AGMs where quoracy has barely been reached or has not been reached at all. Sometimes members don’t feel the need to attend the AGM as they may not feel engaged with the Co-op or they may be complacent in thinking that the Co-op is being run well so they have no need to participate in the AGM. When the membership does not hold the Board to account, the Board can act in the Board’s interest and not in the interest in its membership. If there is a disengaged membership, the Board can form cliques and get people elected that the Board wants, rather than what the overall membership wants. Just like every other organisation structure, there are potential weaknesses in governance that must be guarded against. The virtual AGMs of 2020 have had higher than normal attendances, which has led to more people voting for Board Elections than normal. This has strengthened the democracy of the Co-ops involved. More opportunities for awkward questions!
Positive number 3. Easier to regulate
Online AGMs are easier to run, when there are no technical glitches. With physical AGM’s there can be situations where individual members can be disruptive or take over a meeting. In a virtual AGM this is easier to control. Zoom waiting rooms can prevent people attending that you don’t want to attend without causing a scene or mute buttons can stop somebody speaking when acting inappropriately. I’ve found that AGMs online tend to run to time better than physical AGMs. It is easier to time keep and to stop anybody going rogue. Virtual AGMs I feel have a more functional feel than a physical AGM where tangents can easily distract from the intended business of the AGM.
Positive number 4. Virtual AGMs are cheaper to run
Venue hire, buffets, and expenses can be expensive. If the AGM is in one place, but lots of your Board are spread all over the country, it can be costly to pay for them to come to the AGM and possibly feed and put them up in a hotel for the evening. Depending on the venue, costs for this can be significant. Many Co-ops are having to re-evaluate their costs because of Covid 19. Cost cutting may be required to protect the long term future of the Co-op. Running online AGMs have saved Co-ops money and in some cases thousands of pounds, maybe even into tens of thousands of pounds for the biggest Co-ops.
The big negative
On the flip side to the positives mentioned, I feel that there has been one major downside to having virtual AGMs. The biggest negative is the loss of a personal connection. AGMs are often the only time that members get to interact with each other and the Board. AGMs are a team bonding exercise where social ties are strengthened. Hopefully, they are a time to celebrate the success of the financial year of the AGM and discuss a positive future. When the AGM is online, once the main business is over the meeting is concluded. In a physical AGM there would be time to converse and network with your fellow members and the board. You can informally discuss ideas with those that share a stake in the Co-op. If you are lucky, you can partake in a buffet, whilst having these conversations.
Evaluating virtual AGM season
On the whole I believe that AGM season has been a success for the Co-ops under difficult circumstances. Co-ops have had to adapt and set up new systems in short notice to be able to hold their AGMs. The feedback from members has been positive. Membership engagement has been higher than normal, but the loss of personal connection is important. It remains to be seen what happens with future AGMs. Bigger Co-ops like Central England Co-op have discussed having a hybrid AGM/ Members Meeting where there is a meeting in a physical room, but the meeting is also streamed online. Smaller Co-ops may not be able to have a hybrid meeting and so may have to make a choice. Either way AGM season has been a Success under difficult conditions for the Co-ops that I’m involved with.