Nature Canada

Q&A: How Organizations Can Take Major Meetings Online

As our nation wrestles with cabin fever, nature organizations have sprung into action, eagerly sharing ideas and finding ways to bring wilderness into Canadians’ homes through their windows and their screens. There is a social groundswell afoot as more of us seek to forge new digital connections in our communities.    

Nature groups are embracing new ideas as we adjust to overcome the challenges of physical distancing, and continue connecting Canadians to the wild places in their backyards. Organizations continue to find innovative solutions to move forward in our ‘new normal.’ Nature Canada’s admiration for you has never been greater.

Laura King, President of Nature Newfoundland and Labrador (Nature NL) nailed it when she said “so much of life is online anyways, it seems silly for civic organizations to stop completely.” We agree—and her St. John’s-based organization is walking the talk! 

In mid-March, Nature NL took their Annual General Meeting (AGM) and Photo Night online. We caught up with Laura and Sohil Pramij, Nature NL’s tech lead (who is also on their Board of Directors), to hear how it went. 

Nature Canada: What platform did you choose to host your AGM and why?

Laura: When we realized we would not be able to host an in-person AGM, we threw around a few ideas about platforms that might work. I asked Sohil to find a tool that fit two important criteria: no logins required and no downloads required. I wanted to remove any barriers to participation, and make it easy for anyone to join in. 

We also put up a blog post with all the relevant links that people needed, including last year’s presentation, bylaw documents, etc. We replaced the need for hard copies by emailing materials in advance, and included a link to them in the chat. 

Sohil: I decided to use the Jitsi online meeting tool, mainly because it is open-source and free. We overcame some of its limitations—like video freezing—by refreshing the page, and made an up-front effort to go through training to understand the user interface while sharing video.

Jitsi has many useful features for hosting a meeting online: 

  • The ability to see if someone has a slow or poor internet connection;
  • The opportunity to view who is talking at any given time;
  • The option to mute and unmute participants; and,
  • No limits restricting the number of participants.

Nature NL has never hosted an exclusively digital AGM—how did it go? 

Laura: I think it went really well. It was a lot of fun to see everyone together, especially at a time when we had been isolated for several days. I received many messages afterwards indicating that people had enjoyed it. For a few people, it was their first-ever experience with Nature NL.

Sohil: We had one participant with a weak internet connection, and there was no real solution for them. We also had a small issue with the user interface, as the screen sharing options led to some misunderstandings. Overall, though, it was successful—I was very satisfied to see that no one had any major issues using the platform.

What were some of the highlights and positive aspects with going digital?

Laura: It was pretty funny to see everyone in their homes—one of our speakers started the call with his bearded dragon lizard on his shoulder, and a board member had her cat with her. It was nice to have non-humans make an appearance at the AGM! I felt that it was an unusual and unique online bonding experience. I enjoyed that anyone could talk and respond whenever they wanted, without having to raise their hand (although there is an option for that on the platform).

The photo night part of the evening was a lot of fun. Everyone’s photos looked so gorgeous on the screen, and we could ask questions and share stories together. Someone said afterwards “if this quarantine is going to last a long time, we should keep doing this—getting together to share our photos.” That is the best feedback you can get.

How many people attended the AGM? 

Laura: I was pleased that we had 25 attendees. I actually only expected our board to join. I was very happy because we didn’t do much promotion, the tech was new to us, and this was both an AGM and a photo night (instead of a regular public talk). Now that we know exactly how this platform works, I would promote other events more broadly using this tool. 

Do you think more people would have attended an in-person meeting?

Laura: It is really hard to say. We probably would have had more people in-person (we had more last year), but it can be difficult to get people to attend AGMs because they get a bad rap for their length and content. We do things a bit differently at Nature NL: we discuss necessary items, but we also try to incorporate fun into the evening as much as possible, and keep the finer details minimal.

We always combine our AGM with a fun photo-sharing night. By deliberately keeping the reporting minimal, our naturalists and photographers have more time to show off their beautiful photos. Each speaker picks five of their favourite photos, usually from that year, and provides short stories about each one. The audience gets to hear about species, what the photographer was doing in that moment, a story about their travels, etc. This generates a lot more interest than a regular AGM and keeps the evening engaging and fun. 

Nature NL has done it this way for years—and to whoever first made the decision to incorporate photo sharing into our AGMs: thank you, it was a great one.

Did you run into any snags, or unexpected problems?

Laura: It wasn’t perfect (says the person who messed up her own slides). Jitsi is not a difficult platform to use, but be aware that you have to choose between a variety of screen display options when you turn on screen sharing. I made the wrong selection initially and people could not see what I was trying to share. 

We sent out the link a few days in advance so everyone could test the platform beforehand. I would definitely recommend this as a way to reduce snags and avoid preventable issues. It’s also a chance to test mics, different browsers, and learn the buttons and interface before the actual event starts. 

Will you be hosting other digital events in the future?

Laura: Definitely. We will host our April public talk online, and this week we hosted a bird quiz night online using eBird.

We are also considering the suggestion from one of our members to host a regular photo sharing event. Many of our members and supporters are great photographers and, while a lot of their content is shared online, there is something special about coming together, exchanging stories, and hearing them describe why they love their photos. 

In the end, I think everyone appreciated the opportunity to come together, even if we were all confined to our homes! 

Thanks so much for sharing, Laura and Sohil! Here is a useful article to read when considering a digital AGM for your organization.

Editor’s note: This blog post was updated on Monday, March 30 to reflect the shift in language from “social distancing” to “physical distancing.”

Want to Help?

Canada’s wilderness is the world’s envy. It’s our duty to keep our true north strong and green.