Virtual AGM

Written by Alison Pearce, BBWI President

Another month during the Covid 19 lockdown and another first for the BBWI in that we held our first ever online AGM including most of the usual proceedings with a great turnout including our latest member Anne who hasn’t met any of us in real life!

BBWI usually hold our AGM in May of each year and one monthly meeting is dedicated to having this review of our year and to conduct an election of committee members and a President as part of the stipulated process for being a WI branch. This year we were pleased to be able to invite Angela Sutherland, a West Kent Federation (of which the Belles are part), WI Advisor. Although Angela was present as an invaluable help it certainly added a little to the anxiety of trying something new to have her expert scrutiny and the committee preceded the AGM with several communications and practice voting sessions via the Zoom platform to try and make sure we could conduct the evening as well as possible. We are incredibly grateful to BBWI member Katherine Blackler for her Zoom prowess since she has run virtual AGMs for her business and gave us the confidence and practical assistance to run the meeting smoothly – couldn’t have done it without you Katherine xx

The National Federation of Women’s Institutes had advised that due to the pandemic, branches may postpone their AGM to a later date and maintain the committee volunteers for a further period, even up to the date of the next due AGM. Since the Belles had already held two successful online monthly meetings and all our members are conversant in digital communications we received no objections when polling the membership via email to our proposal to go ahead.

Here follows a summary of our AGM held on Wednesday 20th May, 2020 at 7.30pm via the Zoom video conferencing application. I’ve included some of the text written as the committee’s script in case it may help other WIs to perform their own virtual AGM.

“Normally we’d hand out a ballot paper when people arrive to this meeting- obviously this isn’t possible so we’re going to run the votes using Zoom’s voting capability – thanks for pre-registering to allow this. Zoom performs the function of the usual Tellers tonight as we will get an accurate report from each poll straight away and for the records.

We’re lucky to have a WI Advisor, Angela Sutherland, present this evening and she’s going to oversee the voting and provide guidance where needed (Angela was given the status as a Zoom Co-Host so she could see the polls as they were run and the results coming in. We did not recruit Tellers from other WIs).

This evening we’ll be having a review of our year and hearing from myself and Becky the Vice President, Susan our Secretary, Christel our Treasurer and the club officers. It’s always a lovely time to reflect on all the things we’ve been up to.

We would normally debate the shortlisted resolutions as well during our AGM, giving our pros and cons and having a discussion to see which to support. For those not sure, a WI resolution is something that can be proposed by any member nationwide for the WI to create a campaign around and work on until it sees some results. There’s a long history of resolutions and current examples are Make Time for Mental Health and increasing awareness and uptake of cervical screening. Proposed resolutions go through a national review and voting process until at the national AGM a resolution is voted through. We’re waiting to hear what’s going to happen this year so we’ll postpone our interrogation of this year’s shortlisted ones until later.

At the end of the evening we’ll toast our year and the one to come.”

BBWI Charity
Every year we support a charity in line with the WI Constitution and proceeds from our bi-monthly raffle this WI year are going to Solace who are working to help women suffering domestic abuse. At the AGM members may suggest a new charity and the membership votes in a choice. This year an alternative was suggested by Lara as Bede House and this was voted as our choice for 2020-21 (the voting was held via a Zoom poll).

WI Business
After declaring we had no bylaws to discuss we moved on to the committee elections. This was preceded by a test poll on the subject of cake (naturally) to make sure nobody had any technical issues and everyone member present was capable of voting. Our brand new member abstained from voting and the WI Advisor and another guest for the evening did not vote in any poll. Katherine was Co-host with myself and could launch the polls on Zoom as cued and act as a voting backup via Zoom’s chat function (by private message) if any issue occurred. All polls conducted via Zoom were anonymised so the votes would remain secret as is the WI requirement.

“Current Committee members: Alison, Becky, Christel, Emily, Johanna, Kiki, Lara, Sarah, Susan, Fiona, Polly, Lisa

Committee members joining: Sophie is re-joining as our book club officer
Committee members stepping down: Fiona is stepping down as Venue Queen”

We held our first poll for members to vote for their 2020-21 committee and all aforementioned members with the inclusion of Sophie were supported in the vote.

Our Treasurer Christel talked us though our Financial Statement that against the odds she’d managed to have audited in time for the meeting. Members were able to review the documents prior to the AGM shared via Dropbox and Christel shared her screen on Zoom to talk us through some of the detail. There was a question from a member regarding payment of rent to our venue during lockdown – the answer being that we are grateful that we are not required to pay. We were able to agree the adoption of the Financial Statement for 2019-20 by a show of hands.

Then Susan our Secretary detailed some stats about our membership.
“We finished calendar year 2019 with 55 members, of whom 49 had joined by May. This year we have 41 members, of whom 2 are new members. Welcome Claire and Shealey to your first Borough Belles AGM!

Average meeting attendance was 24. Our most popular meeting in the last 12 months was last July (35) closely followed by February this year (34) – our last real life one. In February we welcomed the wonderful James McIntosh of Knit and Nibble fame and his partner Dr Thomas Ernst. In July 2019 the inspiring wild swimmer, Ella Chloe, just beat the knitters to top spot, but she may have been assisted by a jam tasting for the Daily Telegraph immediately before the main meeting.

Encouragingly, numbers are holding up in lockdown – 30 attended last month and we have had several enquiries from people wanting to join, which demonstrates the success of our online presence.

I had the pleasure of attending a West Kent meeting about becoming a CIO in October. After braving torrential rain I received a very warm WI welcome in the Vestry Hall in Marden. It was good to compare notes with members from different WIs and to learn about the plans to convert to a CIO, which we fully support.” There was a question from a member clarifying the meaning of the acronym CIO and this was clarified by brief discussion.

Club Officer Review
BBWI has several clubs that hold events separately to the monthly meeting. The club organisers then gave a brief review of highlights for the year (we had a slide-show of photos shared on-screen whilst Belles were speaking)

Johanna – Culture Club Officer
“It’s been a full year for Culture Club and we’ve had a lot of fun. We started it off with a joint Film and Culture Club trip to the Cinema Museum to see the original A Star is Born (a total tear jerker). We went to see the avant-garde Natalia Goncharova at the Tate Modern, whose beautiful ballet costume designs were a big hit. We went to a spooky Halloween late at the Science Museum for a scientific take on ghosts and ghouls. We drank and listened to jazz like 1920s socialites in a recreated Austrian bar in the Barbican while touring the world of nightclubs. We spent an evening looking at women fabric collectors and their gorgeous collections at Two Temple Place, followed by cake and a celebrity spot (Pierce Brosnan)! It wasn’t technically Culture Club, but last year’s annual day out was to Bletchley Park where we learned all about code-breaking and intelligence in World War Two. Even when we went into lockdown, we’ve still managed to get together, watching a play at the Barbican It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, and remotely visiting a Degas exhibition in Washington DC. We’ve got more online events lined up and the second it becomes feasible, we’ll be back in business visiting some of the exhibitions and galleries people have said they’ve missed since lockdown!”

Sophie – Cocktails & Pages Officer
“We’ve had a very varied year of reading for Cocktails and Pages, starting with The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale, moving onto Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder and then The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
After these we read The Overstory by Robert Powers and then my personal favourite, which I would highly recommend to everyone – Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo.
Our penultimate book was Melmoth by Sarah Perry and we’re finishing the year by discussing His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet via Zoom next week.
The best part of running book club is that it challenges me to read books I might not otherwise consider picking up; and because we choose our books out of a hat each time we’ve had the opportunity to discuss so many themes in the last year from the ethics and effectiveness of environmental activism and wonders of trees to mental health, the history of philosophy (that one was tough) and how to write a good ghost story.
In March we held our first virtual Cocktails and Pages to discuss Melmoth, and I was very impressed by some of the homemade cocktails – particularly Amelia’s.
Hope to see some of your faces to discuss His Bloody Project next week. I’m really missing the library at the moment, and it will be great to hear about some of the books people have found at home or finally had the time to read in the last couple of months.
Thanks for organising everything guys and look forward to getting more involved again in the coming year after my committee sabbatical!”

Sarah – Craft/Craftivism Club Officer

Becky – Film Club Officer

Kiki – Supper Club Officer

Lara – Lido Club Officer
Last summer we swam at the Serpentine after hearing Ella Foot’s inspiring Wild Swimming talk. Since rebooting lido club in January, we have had some lovely dips at London Fields Lido, Charlton Lido and the Oasis in Tottenham Court Road (just before lockdown). Lido club is sadly on hold at the moment but we hope to be getting back to swimming as soon as we can.
Highlight of the year… It has to be swimming at Hampstead Ladies ponds; beautiful natural environment, lovely community of women who swim there with (cool historic associations) and, of course, the sheer bravery of our members for swimming in the deep weedy water! Not for the faint-hearted!

Lisa – Wandering Belles Officer

During the year we’ve also had less regular club events run by Amelia for Fitness Club, some coffee club meet ups organised by Honey and an energetic ceilidh with Becky.

History of BBWI
Then committee member Lara who’s been a long-standing BBWI member gave us a brief yet fascinating rundown of the Borough Belles WI.

We then attempted a group collage with each member holding up a poster completing the sentences ‘Why I joined the WI…’ and ‘The thing I most enjoy about being a member of BBWI’. Studying these more closely after the meeting there are some common themes of finding friendship in the city and to gain a community, looking for skills and inspiration and of course, cake!

President’s Address
I then gave the customary review of our year in my address coupled by some great pictures …
“What an honour it is to be your president and what a WI to be a member of; I’m really am proud of us right now. Muireann’s shoes were huge ones to fill and after 5 years of her leadership the Belles were going from strength to strength. 

After the incredible happenings of the last couple of months it’s been quite easy to forget all the fantastic meetings we’ve had over the last year – Becky’s going to share a few pictures and I hope you get to have a similar warm fuzzy glow as we reminisce together as I did hunting these out. 

June’s kettle drum session was, in a word, banging (as was the accompanying rather strong punch), followed by one of my favourite meetings, Ella Foote encouraging us to swim outdoors. We’ve picnicked, heard about waterborne microplastics and how to design an artisan perfume. We’ve discovered how women scientists are portrayed in the media (or not), laughed heartily at old film clips and ended the year with some classic festive crafting and chatting. The extra space at BOSCO gave us the opportunity of a surprisingly tiring Tai Chi taster In January and James McIntosh had us rapt with his story of boom, bust, boom via knitting. That’s where the pictures all start to look the same but the content was different – in March we were one of the first WIs to hold a virtual meeting and rushed to put on a quiz while grappling with this new format. We even had a little mention in the most recent WI Life magazine held up as examples of keeping the WI in contact when the environment prevents it. We’ve since had a really well-attended virtual talk about the menopause.

Back in the old world we toured Southwark Cathedral, tasted jam for The Telegraph and visited Bletchley Park – the Borough Belles always has lots going on and you’ve already heard some of the highlights of the year from our club officers. I’m particularly proud of the Belles for adapting to the changes that have been imposed on us and there’s been no lapse in interesting, fun and inspiring things to do whether those are film watch-alongs, sharing meals together, crafting online, chatting about books or telling stories to each other about objects we own.

A stand-out highlight of the year was the celebration of our 10-year anniversary in November. We made our own pizza at Borough Market and toasted the event with a Borough Belles Sour cocktail along with a special cake made by Belle Kiki.

Speaking of Kiki, in her role as Stalls and Fundraising Officer she organised cracking cake stalls at The Great Get Together and the Bermondsey Street Festival and at Christmas we sold Belles-made plastic-avoidance products at Southwark Cathedral craft fair.

Fundraising is a challenging area for the Belles since renting space in central London to hold meetings is extremely expensive and yearly subs only cover 50% of our costs. We rely heavily on member support to make cakes, manufacture crafts or support our stalls to make up the difference each year and this is an enjoyable but sometimes tough job. You’ve already heard our financial position from Christel and due to some dedicated team efforts and sunny days we’re comfortable until Spring next year if we’re unable to fundraise due to the lockdown. We’d much rather be able to raise funds ahead rather than fly by the seat of our pants but unfortunately several of the events we would have held stalls at have been cancelled. While we’re fortunate to be in this position, we are only here due to the amazing work and commitment of people in the past and I’d like to ask that as we move in to an unknowable and uncertain future, every member pitches in, in some way to help BBWI continue to flourish for all of us. Moreover, doing activities with such a fantastic group of women is always enriching and never a chore. It’s a privilege. 

I’d like to express a huge thank you to the excellent team that’s the committee for all their enthusiasm, creativity and resilience – nothing is going to stop us from trying to continue to deliver the Borough Belles experience… not even a pandemic. Amelia, a long-serving committee member, ex-Treasurer and Fitness Club Officer stood down earlier this year and Fiona our Venue Queen is stepping down from the committee today – did you have some special foresight Fiona that your logistics wouldn’t be needed for a few months…?! Thanks both of you for your dedication and support. In March Johanna stood down as our Social Media Officer passing the baton to Polly and we haven’t had a chance to properly thank Johanna for doing a brilliant job for us and holding the post for so long – certainly 5-years at least! Johanna can I invite you to open your post now*… this is a small thank you from the committee.

When life is uncertain and worrying it’s worth remembering that we have each other. I’ll let you into a secret – when I first joined the Belles shortly afterwards I went on a run with running club officer Emma and on the way home afterwards I cried because I was happy I’d made a friend and that felt very rare and special in my life right then. And look at us now! You get out what you put in. The Borough Belles will prevail. Thank you all.”

*this didn’t quite work as the post hadn’t arrived but a day later Johanna was happy to show us her gift…

Presidential Vote
We then held our final poll via Zoom to choose a President from the list of elected committee members. In real life any nominated committee members may stand for President and the Tellers would have a discrete chat with nominees to ask if they would be happy to stand before any announcement or further voting happens. Since this wasn’t possible the committee pre-prepared a secret poll via Doodle answering the question ‘if you were named as President choice by a member would you be prepared to stand for 2020-21  -yes/no’. This meant Katherine who was in control of the Zoom polling could cross reference nominees with their prior agreement to stand. As it happened this process wasn’t required since I was stunned to receive 100% of the nominations from voters! The official result being that I, Alison Pearce, will stand as BBWI President for another year

(Should there have been more than one name nominated and happy to stand we had prepared a further Zoom poll to launch if needed)

I then concluded the AGM:
“Thanks to everyone for allowing the Borough Belles to hold our AGM virtually this year. I hope it’s been interesting and inspiring and will give us some more energy to adapt and look for solutions while we’re facing social distancing to keep us connected and having fun. A huge thanks to Angela for coming along and assisting us in the voting process and for Katherine in facilitating this.”

We then shared a toast with our own drinks at home and the floor was opened for chatting.

Additional technical notes:

  • It’s possible to download a poll report from Zoom to facilitate any audit of the voting process. This of course is anonymous if set up correctly
  • The committee tested Zoom polling on a number of different devices to check it worked well
  • Our Zoom pro suggested splitting question options into 2 sets so responses wouldn’t necessitate scrolling as this had been problematic in her past experience i.e. our committee nominees were 12 so their names were split over 2 questions in one poll with an option to choose ‘none of these’ on each question (multiple choice). The same format was repeated for the President voting poll (single answer)
  • It’s possible to alter a poll before it has gone live so nominees for President for instance may be added by the meeting Chair on Zoom providing someone else can keep the ball rolling in the meantime 😉 Communications between the meeting Chair and poll/admin facilitator can be done via Zoom private chat message
  • A recording of the meeting (with permission from attendees) may also be made to ensure correct process has been adhered to and for future reference. The meeting Chair can set this up to start recording from the outset in advance
  • Requiring attendees to pre-register on Zoom and use the link in the confirmation email to enter the meeting means you have a ready register to check people off as they arrive (by downloading a registrants report from Zoom) and make sure there’s no duplicates of voting devices. The Chair and admin will need to set up another device each e.g. a phone or tablet (labelled on Zoom as voting devices) to ensure they can participate in polls (Hosts and Co-Hosts are unable to vote)
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