Annual meetings are the one time of year when cooperative leaders get to communicate face-to-face with members about the state of the co-op and its future goals. While these meetings tend to attract the “hard core” members who will attend no matter what, cooperators are also seeking ways to bring fresh vibrancy to the meetings and welcome new people. Board leaders understand that hosting an exciting annual meeting also has lasting benefits for the organization. People who interact with co-op leaders and understand their co-op’s goals are much more prepared to support its growth through patronage and investment. People love meeting people in a convivial environment, and a well-rounded annual meeting goes beyond the co-op’s boundaries to generating positive public relations in the community.
Food cooperatives really have an edge when it comes to enticing people to meetings because good, healthy food is a focal point of the business, and we all know that food brings people and communities together. Food cooperatives around the country seeking that level of engagement have successfully merged business activities with festivities, and many of them have determined that their annual business meeting should include great food and meaningful and thought-provoking pursuits. It demonstrates to members that they are valued for their patronage and input.
At Open Harvest in Lincoln, Nebraska, board member Carla McCullough said that they had been looking for ways in 2012 to “change up” how they were holding their annual meeting in order to get more people interested in attending. As an underwriter to the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, a local movie theater, the co-op is allowed to use its space for an event of their choice. Choosing to hold their annual meeting there turned out to be a brilliant choice.
“Our 2012 annual meeting really went above and beyond,” said McCullough, in terms of everyone’s expectations. The deli catered a delicious meal in the beautiful lobby, and the co-op partnered with a local bottle shop to serve beer and wine. In the past, annual meetings were potluck, and McCullough said that people really liked the luxury of “just showing up” versus preparing a dish to pass. People enjoyed the opportunity to socialize in that setting and meet other cooperators.
The business meeting was held in the theater, and this turned out to be a real boon for the annual meeting organizers as well. “The ability to have access to the technology there was huge,” said McCullough. Past meetings were held in a public park where speakers had to contend with outdoor noise and poor amplification. At the theater, they could control lights and sound, and everyone had a comfortable chair facing front. “Members could easily participate in that environment, increasing the opportunity for giving and getting feedback,” she said.
Board members also had a big agenda—the desire to pass fresh start bylaws—which had been controversial in the prior year. In the theater, they could show members the decision making process with visual aids and take questions without distractions. It helped enormously, and the bylaws passed unanimously. After the business portion of the meeting, an Open Harvest staff member who had been working on a documentary about Common Good Farm showed his film. There was a panel discussion with the farmers after the film. People were completely engrossed in the co-op’s event. “Everyone stayed for the whole thing,” McCullough said, “The gathering, meeting, film and discussion.”
“The light bulb moment for me was having the opportunity to show members what went into the bylaws changes. It showed our transparency in a way they had not been able to see it in the past,” she said. Now Open Harvest is wondering what they can do to top the success of their last annual meeting. A good problem to have.