November 11, 2013

I’ve always been curious about the concept of “the annual meeting.”

The primary purpose of an annual meeting is to elect board members. If the board elects its own members (e.g., there are no other “members”), then the annual meeting is just a regular board meeting. The board elects its members and its officers. There is the usual financial report and the usual due diligence that happens at any board meeting.

If you have members other than board members, then maybe the members elect the board members and the board elects officers. So you might have a separate annual meeting. I HATE THAT! I dislike members electing board members. I dislike members having any role in governance.

When I say “dislike,” I mean my professional opinion based on my work in nonprofits: my expertise in governance and fundraising. For me, “member” is another term for “donor.” Some organizations and professionals think that “member” sounds more like ownership than “donor.” I think that’s a rather sad testament to our treatment of and view of donors. But whatever…

Members are donors are members. So whether I buy a membership or give a gift, I am an investor and members and donors should get the same “benefits.” And for some organizations, that “benefit” is voting for board members.

But honestly, if you want to have members and call them members and they are your donors… You do NOT have to allow them to elect board members. Your members/donors don’t know who would be a good board member. Your members/donors don’t know about what you need in governance.

Further more, it’s fairly typical that not very many members/donors attend the annual meeting. Really, how interesting can an annual meeting be — unless you design a really good thing with really interesting speakers.

Those members/donors don’t need a vote. There is no useful purpose. Donor-centrism and relationship building are what build donor/member loyalty…not electing board members. (Even the power of electing a president doesn’t motivate U.S. citizens to go vote. The U.S. has one of the lowest voting rates of any democratic nation in the world.)

So change your bylaws. Members don’t elect board members. (Oops. Maybe your bylaws can’t be amended without members voting. Gosh. What a mess. Fix it. You can.)

If you want to have an annual gathering of your members/donors/friends, that’s cool. Talk about your mission, have an interesting speaker, invite a donor and client to speak. Show images of great stuff that members/donors/friends produced. Whatever. Call it an an annual meeting to report to your investors (members/donors/friends). Mingle and schmooze and nurture relationships. Talk about impact – of members/donors/friends.

In June 2013, I attended the 179th Annual Meeting of Children’s Friend. I was there because the agency was honoring a dear friend of mine. I arrived a bit late so the meeting had already started. But here is what I saw and heard.

First, there were 200+ people in the room sitting at round tables. I asked one of the staff, “How in heaven’s name do you get this many people?” The response: “These are all our employees, all our board members, our policy council, and dear friends.” (I forgot to ask if they invite their donors. But I’m hoping they do!)

Children’s Friend brings together all its employees four times per year. They close the agency and bring together employees for trainings and talking and the annual meeting. I don’t know how many employees Children’s Friend has, but at least 100, I suspect.

The President and CEO made wonderful remarks about the health of the agency, public policy and advocacy work, the impact of the agency’s work. A wonderful slide show presented 2012-2013 highlights. Photos of donors and the kids and families served and agency events and staff doing lots of things and and … The audience laughed and applauded and called out.

Then there were the awards.

  • Employee service awards for 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 years of employment. Everyone came up on stage. Everyone had his/her face on the big screen with a mini bio.
  • Special tribute to a wonderful volunteer who had recently died. His wife and daughter were there.
  • And the annual award for service to the agency. That’s the award my friend received.

What was the ambiance in this room? Happiness. Pride. Respect. Joy. Fun. People were cheering and laughing. People were happy. Smiling faces. Mingling and hanging around.

I don’t remember if there was voting for board members by all those people attending. To me, this gathering was a celebration, a marvelous cultivation event.

Think about it. What is your intent? How you can best achieve that? Why have members involved in governance? Why confuse governance with cultivation? Think about it. Maybe a change is in order for your organization.

About Simone Joyaux

A consultant specializing in fund development, strategic planning, and board development, Simone P. Joyaux works with all types and sizes of nonprofits, speaks at conferences worldwide, and teaches in the graduate program for philanthropy at Saint Mary’s University, MN. Her books, Keep Your Donors and Strategic Fund Development, are standards in the field.

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