Annual meetings: you gotta love ’em. Frequently written into the bylaws and often a legal requirement for co-ops, this event is typically recognized as the primary opportunity for member-owners to link with other shareholders, hear directly from board and management, and give input on co-op issues.
The annual meeting is the one occasion that speaks most directly to the second cooperative principle: democratic member control. It brings together under one roof active individuals from within three intersecting co-op cultures: board, staff, and shareholders. The conversation they have in this context can set the tone for the health of the business.
How do we make the most of the annual meeting, creating an occasion that educates, excites, delights, and energizes? One that isn’t simply (in the words of one listserv posting) a “pantomime” or a drain on resources, “spreading pain and irritation throughout the organization”?
It wasn’t long ago that for many of us the annual meeting was a fairly lackluster affair. One member of my co-op, Bloomingfoods Market and Deli in Bloomington, Indiana, recalls a very tedious and tendentious meeting “in the old days” when there was what seemed like an endless debate about whether the co-op should stock any white bread. Nervous board members, a few reluctant staff, a number of alienated or embittered members, and a mediocre potluck (“lots of tabouli and one ugly lasagna”)—this is the nightmare scenario for a bad annual meeting.
Fortunately, those days seem to be in the past. What we have today are some stellar examples of meetings that succeed. They deliver not only superior taste treats—after all, we are leaders in the food business—but also satisfaction among the co-op board, staff, and shareholders.
Doing the numbers
The annual meeting is tied to the board calendar, often written into the by-laws as something that shall be held each year at a time and location to be determined by the Board of Directors.
Because it is frequently connected with the culmination of the board election cycle, member-owners often come to the meeting to meet the candidates or to learn who won the election. They typically hear a financial summary from the board treasurer. Annual reports may be circulated at the meeting or may have been printed in the newsletter or sent through the mail.
For many co-ops, especially those with a large number of owners, this meeting is no longer one where binding decisions are made or votes taken. As member numbers grow into the thousands, many boards have recognized the importance of safeguarding the business from decisions made by a renegade group who may not represent the interests or will of the membership-at-large. Many co-ops craft their by-laws to stipulate a quorum representing a percentage of membership. The annual meeting is redefined with an emphasis on information and socializing; any significant issues are put to a vote with mailed ballots.
There are exceptions. Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, requires that fifty members be present in order for an annual meeting to take place. Once this number is met, a vote on pre-determined agenda items is recognized as binding.
Mari Niescior-Skeels, Owner Services Director at Outpost, has helped coordinate six annual meetings there. She says, “We usually plan for about one hour for the business portion of the meeting, but it tends to run over. People have questions and want to make comments, so that’s fine. The board is committed to talking to owners. This year there were three by-law change motions on the agenda, each requiring a vote. One was controversial: a motion to not allow employees to serve on the board. That brought out more employees than we’ve ever had at an annual meeting, and it didn’t pass.”
Controversy is so well recognized as a means of attracting attendance that some people have suggested that the best way to guarantee a crowd is to (deceptively) announce that the co-op is about to be closed; owners are invited to discuss the crisis. But controversy isn’t the only way to generate interest.
Where food and financials mix
“We didn’t invent this event, we inherited it,” says Robynn Shrader, executive director of NCGA and governance chair of the board at New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City. “Annual meetings come with a lot of baggage attached; people think of pie charts and big business and expect to be bored.”
If food co-ops are more often recognized for their pies than their pie charts, that doesn’t mean they can’t create both. Many stores have come to see the meeting as a place where they can showcase their local, organic, and natural foods offerings, even while delivering financial and governance news.
And then there is the question of beer. “If you want to ensure attendance, buy a keg, hire a band, and have a party,” says general manager Kelly Wiseman of Community Food Co-op in Bozeman, Montana. Recent annual meetings have taken place on the large deck of their newly remodeled store, right on the busiest street in town. Audacious, festive, and jubilant, these meetings celebrate the success of Community Food Co-op in expanding its footprint and its cultural reach.
At Bloomingfoods Market and Deli, beer has also been on the menu. In 2003 the annual meeting was held on a Thursday night in October in a huge tent on the parking lot of the East store, where the co-op deli teamed up with the staff at the Bloomingfoods-owned Encore Café to create a very popular meal. The kitchen manager and deli manager were both surprise recipients of staff service awards, and a great dance band capped off the night. “It was fun but exhausting,” more than one person said.
“We have a Sunday afternoon cocktail party format now, with wine spritzers and a buffet meal served during the meeting,” says BJ Davis, marketing manager of Brattleboro Food Coop in Brattleboro, Vermont. “We’ve learned that it’s really important to hold the meeting while people eat, so that we have a captive audience.” In the eleven years that BJ has worked for the co-op, she’s watched the meeting grow from a low of 27 members to its present success. “We’ve used a food theme, featuring African and Indian food, drawing on the talents of some caterers in our community.”
Entertainment and education
Beer is served in Milwaukee too (no surprise there!), where the most recent Outpost Natural Foods annual meeting took place at a local art theater on a Sunday afternoon in February. More subdued than the parties in Bozeman and Bloomington, the Outpost meeting involved appetizers, drinks, and popcorn. After the business meeting, owners enjoyed two films: a locally made short called “The Grocery” (featuring their own Westside store), and “Rivers and Tides,” a documentary about Andy Goldsworthy, a British artist who creates installations in the outdoors. “It’s a wonderful movie, and a good fit for us,” says Mari Niescior-Skeels. “Watching the movie helped make it a really relaxing afternoon.”
No alcohol is served at the Sunday brunch meeting for Lakewinds Natural Foods in Minnetonka, Minnesota, where the focus is also on a positive social experience. “This event is really for the members,” says Katherine Roseth, marketing communications manager. The co-op holds its annual meeting at the Minnetonka Community Center, a large banquet facility that allows it to showcase its own food. Tickets are available on a first come, first serve basis beginning six weeks in advance—in order to motivate attendees, control for capacity (maximum 200), and offset the cost of the meal.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with having an affordable ticket price to cover the cost of the food,” says Roseth, “and members seem to understand this. Of course all members can attend the business meeting, whether or not they purchase tickets.” The Lakewinds annual meeting usually features a guest speaker, and other co-ops have played with that format as well, usually choosing someone from the non-profit, co-op, or wellness sectors.
“We once had a near disaster,” says Jeanne Lakso, marketing and membership manager at Linden Hills Co-op in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “On the day of the meeting I got a call from the very popular speaker we had booked, a woman who talks about the importance of humor as a tool for healing. She was sick and couldn’t make it: how funny is that?”
Lakso got on the phone and worked her relationships, inviting a local Pilates practitioner (a co-op member) to fill in. “The seventy people at the meeting were a little surprised when they were asked to do a bit of stretching, but it turned out to be a very enjoyable time.”
“Positive owner experiences are key to furthering the cooperative model of business and growing the movement,” says Robynn Shrader, who in a previous role as marketing manager at New Pioneer helped organize the PiFest, an annual meeting celebrating the co-op’s 25th anniversary.
When planning your annual meeting, it pays to stretch and try something fresh. “You know that thing that happens at a good party, where everyone is in the kitchen?” asks Annie Hoy, owner services manager at Ashland Co-op in Ashland, Oregon. “That’s the feeling we want to achieve.”
Creative programming and careful planning produce a positive echo throughout the organization. All across our co-op network we are witnessing annual meetings that reflect the success of our stores, and one thing is clear: pleasure can now come to the table at this event.
Ten Tips from the Pros for a Successful Annual Meeting
1. Design an event that reflects your co-op’s personality as well as its purpose. Use it as an opportunity to celebrate the co-op, aiming for a balance of business, education, participation,
—Marilyn Scholl, Consultant; Cooperative Development Services.
2. Plan ahead. Begin far enough in advance so that everyone has the energy to create a successful event. Assign a lead, and give that person the support he or she needs. Keep notes and evaluate afterwards to ensure that you meet a set of standards for quality each year.
—Katherine Roseth, Marketing Communications Manager; Lakewinds Natural Foods and Lakewinds Natural Home; Minnetonka, Minnesota; Co-author (with Pat Cumbie) of "The Brand Readiness Kit."
3. Remember: the more food you offer, the more they will come. If your deli is preparing the meal, work with them to come up with a menu that doesn’t put too much stress on daily kitchen operations. Consider offering a limited menu (such as dessert only) or using other quality local food services, especially if your deli doesn’t generally do catering.
—Annie Hoy, Outreach and Owner Services Manager; Ashland Food Co-op; Ashland Oregon.
4. Think about printing an annual report, to be mailed to member-owners in advance of the meeting. This communications tool might include pieces by the General Manager and the Board President, providing current information about the co-op. At the Merc we also feature an article about community outreach and donations, as well as financial information, in the form of a Balance Sheet.
—David Smith, Director of Marketing and Membership; Community Mercantile; Lawrence, Kansas.
5. Take the time to plan and post or print the meeting agenda. Have a good facilitator with knowledge of the process and a sense of humor, who can keep things moving along. This person needs to moderate the discussion, not allowing it to get side-tracked. He or she can’t be afraid to cut people off.
—Dan Nordley, Board Chair; Seward Co-op Grocery & Deli; Minneapolis, Minnesota.
6. When thinking about the number of attendees, remember: it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. This isn’t your largest event of the year, but it reaches people who want to know more about the inner workings of the co-op and who are appreciative of the chance to visit and share some food.
—Jeanne Lakso, Marketing and Membership Manager; Linden Hills Co-op; Minneapolis, Minnesota.
7. Add recognition to the mix. Think of the banquet at CCMA, and how it generates warmth when inspiring cooperators are recognized for their contributions. Your co-op’s annual meeting is also a chance to cheer for those who help it succeed. Bask and glow in the radiance of their achievements.
—Ellen Michel, Marketing and Outreach Manager; Bloomingfoods Market and Deli; Bloomington, Indiana.
8. Remember that this is a great opportunity to gather feedback from owners. Our board treats the meeting more like a workshop or focus group, deciding on a topic for a small group work session. This allows owners to participate more actively, and gives the board some answers to their questions.
—Christy Raulli, Owner Services Coordinator; Weaver Street Market; Carborro, North Carolina.
9. Make the effort to communicate with member-owners on a daily basis, not just at the annual meeting. If there’s a general lack of communication, you run the risk of building up resentment and misinformation. Give your member- owners information throughout the year and try to listen to their feedback: ongoing communication fosters trust.
—Paul Cultrera, General Manager; Sacramento Natural Foods; Sacramento, California.
10. The annual meeting gives you a chance to celebrate your past, inform about the present, and be aspirational about the future. All three of these elements contribute to a satisfying experience.
—Robynn Shrader, Executive Director, NCGA; Governance Chair, New Pioneer Board of Directors; Iowa City, Iowa.