Suggestions for a great AGM

Posted on 12 Jun 2024

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

AGM raising hands vote shutterstock 786429082

If you’re not careful, your annual general meeting (AGM) can be a deadly dull affair: the bare minimum of members reluctantly shuffling into a stuffy, echoing and chilly hall, raising and lowering their hands on cue to wave through the essential paperwork, before shuffling home again (possibly with grumbling stomachs), regretting going out in the first place. We’ve all suffered through the Zoom equivalent.

But for the tens of thousands of community organisations in Australia, those same AGMs can be a chance to revitalise your not-for-profit and renew your mission, bring in lively speakers, release engaging reports, excite new office bearers, and reward members with door prizes, entertainment, great snacks, and a memorable night of networking.

The end of the financial year is a great time to start planning an AGM, with many jurisdictions requiring them to be held between four to six months later.

The Institute of Community Directors Australia is here to help. Here’s what our panel of experts suggests you do to make the most of this once-a-year opportunity.

In short: Do your homework, understand your constitution, avoid making your event boring, and use your AGM to advance your cause.

You’ll find more great resources for your AGM at the end of this article.

AGM meeting shutterstock 2158351999
Hosting a successful AGM is all about good planning.

Educate yourself for a good AGM

Organising a great AGM” is an annual fixture on the ICDA training schedule. Trainer Jon Staley says the sessions are always well attended, because many organisations are obliged to hold an AGM by law, and because leaders are always keen to make sure things run smoothly.

“An AGM is an opportunity to showcase what you've done throughout the year, including significant achievements you've made. If you've had a difficult year, it's an opportunity to put that on the table, explain what happened, and tell people what you're trying to do to address it.”

Mr Staley said he believed many organisations were on the right track by “making a bit of an event of it, by inviting a guest speaker related to your industry”.

“The best AGMs are those in which there is a high level of member engagement and a real sense of connecting members to your mission: what you're doing and why you're doing it.”

He said it was also an opportunity to do a bit of community building.

“If you have an engaged membership, it's an opportunity to really build on that, and if it’s not engaged, it’s an opportunity to try to build it up.”

To make an AGM lively and engaging, it was essential for office bearers and senior leaders to address their members “in clear, plain language”, he said.

Read the constitution

Jon Staley
ICDA trainer Jon Staley

Mr Staley said that in preparing for an AGM, organisations must refer to their constitution and “follow the formula, in terms of anything that's outlined”.

“If you’ve read it correctly, your constitution will generally tell you what you need to know and what steps you need to take.”

“There’s often a lot to be ticked off, which is why not-for-profits need to closely consult their constitutions.”

He said the constitution would guide organisations on how to handle the agenda; for instance, it might mandate that an organisation give members sufficient written notice of the agenda and what was on it, generally 21 days.

An AGM could also be used to pass special resolutions, “but to do so you’ll have to create a specific agenda item for such things as changing membership requirements or making constitutional changes.”

“It’s an alternative to calling a special general meeting to take proposals to the members to make constitutional changes, but if you're putting forward a special resolution, these must be clearly and transparently put on the table.”

The constitution may also outline rules on proxy votes.

AGMs also require the lodging of annual financial reports, which like everything else should be presented in clear and plain language.

Inject some new blood into your organisation

Mr Staley said AGMs were the time to appoint or reappoint office bearers, depending on their terms of office, but he said candidates should have been teed up ahead of the meeting.

“If you're seeking new people to take up office bearer positions, often they’ll need to have been nominated and become a member before the AGM. Often, directors will need to come from the existing member base.”

“If someone's going to come on as a director, they might have had to have been accepted in a previous board meeting as a member first – depending on the constitution.

“You should be thinking about that well ahead of the AGM and you should have already approached people who you think might have the mix of skills you’re looking for.”

He said ICDA advised boards to conduct a succession review well in advance of an AGM at which they were were hopeful of new office bearers nominating.

Catherine Brooks
Community Directors Council member Catherine Brooks

Community Directors Council member and fundraising expert Catherine Brooks said organisations should think carefully about the kinds of people they’re trying to attract, and not just their skills, but their contacts too.

Asked about the kinds of skills and talents that will help an organisation with its fundraising, Ms Brooks said groups should seek a balance.

“We know when funders are looking at our clients and the boards that are governing these charities and organisations, funders want to see good governance. So having a lawyer and accountant on a board is fantastic. Also, someone with lived experience and a good gender mix is important, but we know a lot of charities also are struggling when it comes to fundraising.

“The question often arises: ‘Do we seek a professional fundraiser to join our board or what other options do we have?’”

“I often recommend to boards to consider attracting people that are very good leaders within the community onto your board. They are able to understand the importance of the charity, and the work that you're doing, but they are also prepared to go out to their contacts in the community, tap them on the shoulder and ask them to contribute.

“That can bring important donors, influence, and leadership to support your cause."

“Keep the information accessible for everyone, not just those that have a deep understanding of the organisation.”
Nina Laitala, ICDA lead trainer

Keep it all accessible

Nina Laitala
ICDA lead trainer Nina Laitala

ICDA lead trainer Nina Laitala said one of the biggest traps for unwary organisations was allowing their AGM to be boring.

“Some of the best AGMs I've been to were hosted by peak bodies, as they provide an opportunity for members to network, usually have guest speakers, and often have a relevant member of Parliament.”

“AGMs are a great opportunity to promote the organisation and the great year they've had.”

A musician herself, Ms Laitala suggested guest performers and speakers – along with food and refreshment – can make an AGM more interesting.

And she reinforced Mr Staley’s view that organisers must ensure that members are able to understand the proceedings and the information being presented.

“Keep the information accessible for everyone, not just those that have a deep understanding of the organisation.”

She believed this advice was particularly true of the financial reports and stressed that the treasurer or whoever delivers them should “do it in a way that anyone can understand”.

She also advised organisers to ensure “there is opportunity for members to ask questions and that office bearers or other representatives are prepared to answer them in simple terms”.

Don’t forget the bottom line: accountability

Susan Pascoe
Community Directors Council chair Susan Pascoe

Susan Pascoe, chair of the Community Directors Council and former ACNC commissioner warned that AGMs “can be the most boring events in the annual cycle of a charity”, but said that a guest speaker and refreshments were all attractions.

“That might all sound like window dressing, but the more people you can get there, that's a real benefit.”

She said some AGMs went too far the other way and were “virtually a party and a community-building initiative”.

“The main event, of course, is that you're getting to account to the community that funds you, to the beneficiaries that you serve, and for your governance requirements. You are accounting in terms of your finances, your outcomes, and the implementation of your strategy.

“But whether you choose to do it online, because it's a way of getting people [from] beyond a particular geographic location, whether you try to make it at an event … I think the important thing is that the baseline needs to be covered. And that is, you've got good governance, you're accounting properly for what you've done over the past 12 months, but you're also using it as an opportunity to build community and to increase the knowledge of and support of your enterprise.

“The bottom line is that it is a governance requirement. Accountability is critical to any legally based community entity, particularly those that are taking funding from the community. They have a responsibility to account for what they've done.”

“You need to be able to reassure people about what’s happening and why, and how it’s consistent with your mission and values.”
Barbara Hingston, Scope Disability Services

AGMs are a great way to explain your strategy, key decisions

Scope Disability Services is one of Australia’s largest providers of its kind, having emerged from the efforts of parents to support children with significant disabilities in the post-World War II era.

It has grown in the past 75 years to provide services in more than 400 locations in Victoria and NSW, and it managed $588 million in the 2023 financial year.

At its 2022 AGM, the organisation hosted a hybrid event for 47 attendees (not including proxy votes). It featured a showcase of projects, sector artworks, presentations from community inclusion and innovation teams, and a closing address from artist, disability advocate and writer Eliza Hull.

There were presentations of the organisation’s strategic and financial affairs over the past year from the chair, deputy and CEO, and the meeting saw one director reappointed (unopposed).

Barbara Hingston
Scope Australia director Barbara Hingston

Director Barbara Hingston said the adoption of a hybrid format was a covid-19 innovation, and the event aimed to engage longstanding members connected to the organisation’s 75-year history.

“We engage former members and stakeholders, current stakeholders, our consumers, and the members of the Scope entity,” she said.

Ms Hingston said the AGM was a great chance to connect with the organisation’s stakeholders.

“If you ask me what makes a good Scope AGM, I would say that inclusivity of the board, senior executive, staff, your consumers, and your members. It's trying to be a clear voice about where you're taking the organisation, what you've done over the past year, where you want to go, an understanding of the strategy and what you're trying to do.”

Scope uses a number of forms of engagement to aid understanding; for example, at its last AGM, a member of its consumer advisory committee hosted a session addressing questions such as “Where do you want Scope to be?” and “What's the vision you have for this organisation?”

“The AGM – for us – presents opportunities for consumers to have a voice,” Ms Hingston said, “and I think that's really important in an AGM.”

Ms Hingston suggested that problems could arise for unwary directors who had failed to do their due diligence before the meeting and were unprepared for difficult questions.

Directors and representatives should be able to explain a financial strategy, for example, which might mean explaining, “We want to go in this direction, or we need to spend funds in this way, what we're doing with the reserve … and decisions about the finances and funding agreements.”

And directors should be capable of reassuring members about the handling of serious matters such as staff misconduct, which Scope experienced during a recent high-profile case of client mistreatment.

“You need to be able to reassure people about what’s happening and why, and how it’s consistent with your mission and values,” Ms Hingston said.

“For CCA, our AGM – like all we do – is about advancing our purpose."
Deborah Smith, partnerships manager, Community Council for Australia

How your AGM can add to your influence

The peak body for community organisations in Australia, the Community Council for Australia (CCA), this year used its AGM to press its case for sector reforms with key decision makers, and to spell out a new strategic plan.

At the Parliament House event in May, the organisation separately hosted the Charities Minister Andrew Leigh and the shadow minister Senator Dean Smith.

The event was closely tied to the organisation’s push for greater influence for the sector.

Deborah Smith
Community Council for Australia's Deborah Smith

Partnerships manager Deborah Smith said the AGM helped keep the CCA agenda on track.

“For CCA, our AGM – like all we do – is about advancing our purpose. It’s about accountability to the membership that enables our work, but more than that, it is a chance to reflect on our success and our failures over the previous year with members and partners, to set our vision on what we still need to achieve together, and to use our gathering to advance our mission together.”

Ms Smith said although many CCA meetings were hosted online, the in-person AGM engaged key decision makers in a pre-election year.

“CCA’s AGM is at Parliament House – deliberately so – to engage ministers and parliamentarians with the value and the issues of our sector, as well as to transact the business of the AGM.”

“It’s an opportunity for the exceptional leaders and CCA members to speak directly with those in positions of power, on the issues that matter to our sector.

She said the talks at the recent AGM on some of the biggest issues facing the sector were “frank, open and personable conversations”, yet “cut very clearly to what government needs to change to improve the performance, sustainability, impact and contribution of Australia’s charity and NFP sector”.

She said the minister “gave us a good hearing on our frustration at the inertia in reform”. She said that sector leaders were able to highlight the lack of progress on issues such as delays in contracting and payments, and the impact of the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into philanthropy.

Advocates were forthright in telling the minister that “charities work in some of the most challenging areas of supporting people and community, yet the challenges charities face are brushed aside”.

According to a summary of the AGM to members, Senator Smith told members that he supported civil society and recognised the value of charity advocacy, even suggesting a charities minister in Cabinet would be a “powerful way to say this is important”. He was closely interested in new arrangements for NFPs reporting to the ATO and the results of the philanthropy review.

CCA’s strategic plan released

Ms Smith said members witnessed the release of a new three-year strategic plan at the event, as well as the organisation’s annual report.

She said using the AGM to mark the release of both significant documents “sharpens both our policy and advocacy focus, and the work that is needed to support CCA’s effectiveness as a sustainable, effective organisation fulfilling its mission of enhancing the extraordinary work of Australia’s charities and NFPs to build flourishing communities.”

Chat GPT demigod
Artificial intelligence can enhance your AGM, if used correctly. Picture: ChatGPT4

Activate AI for AGM assistance

As organisations increasingly turn to artificial intelligence to help them with repetitive tasks, leaders should consider potential uses for AI to help with running annual meetings, according to AI itself.

Quizzed for this article, ChatGPT4 appeared quite confident of being able to help, and also highlighted the availability of tools and methods that could be used in AGMs.

Prompted to come up with ways AI could help a small organisation to prepare for and conduct an AGM, it suggested:

  • live transcription tools (such as to help with minutes, to provide a good record for those unable to attend
  • similarly automated captioning to help those online or with hearing impairment to participate
  • chatbots to help tackle common member queries about meeting time, location, agenda and accessing documents
  • automated scheduling tools such as Doodle to help find suitable meeting times
  • sentiment analysis to gauge member reactions to topics.

Artificial intelligence can also assist with the production of financial and annual reports, including helping to analyse financial data for problem areas and trends.

And it can help predict likely financial conditions based on past data. We quizzed ChatGPT4o about how it would interrogate a state or federal budget and it suggested extracting data, analysing data, and then creating scenarios from that information.

It also claims to be able to generate graphs, trends and explanations of financial reports, and to create visualisations that could help with presentations.

By incorporating these AI-assisted technologies, you can make your AGM more inclusive, efficient, and responsive to the needs of all members,” ChatGPT4 wrote.

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