Retreats create a tremendous opportunity for nonprofit boards to build connections, increase understanding, and gain alignment on a path forward.
The continual learning and capacity development by boards and organizations is considered a best practice. It’s why retreat facilitation is one of our favorite scopes of work to partner with clients on.
However, not all board retreats are planned or facilitated well. When this happens, board members can walk away feeling that their time was wasted, and that can contribute to a lack of engagement.
Our team encourages all nonprofits to have an annual board retreat that inspires action for the year ahead. The following items are some decisions that contribute to a “good” board retreat.
- Retreat location. Hosting an off-site retreat can create some needed separation from the organization, physically and mentally. Whether you rent a facility or go to a board member’s office, make sure the meeting space is large enough for breakout sessions and has access to a kitchen and green space.
- Retreat day and time. We recommend hosting retreats during the week as we find that weekend retreats are problematic for board member attendance. It can be much easier for board members to take a half day or full day off work to attend to a retreat than to lose a day of family time on the weekend. Half-day retreats can be morning or afternoon, and most full-day retreats follow the workday rather than spilling over into the evening, unless that is used for social gathering time.
- Retreat participants. The focus should be on the board, chief executive, and a few select senior staff members. We don’t recommend a large number of senior staff members because the retreat is designed for the board and chief executive. It’s difficult to have conversations about the strategic direction of the organization when program staff, who may be impacted by decisions, are in the room.
- Retreat topics. Choose a theme for the retreat and hone in on some topics that will help the organization solve problems, leverage opportunities, and build both capacity and connections. The following are themes we facilitate most often.
- Mission, vision, and values.
- Board roles and responsibilities.
- Board operations, dynamic agendas, and board committee review.
- Board composition, recruitment, and onboarding.
- Board’s role in fundraising.
- Board-chief executive constructive partnership.
- Board culture and board engagement.
- Board self-assessment.
- Board stages, organizational growth, and decision making.
- By-laws revision and policy review.
- Strategic planning and succession planning.
- Retreat content. The best way to dive into one of these topics is to plan in advance and to gather insight, perceptions, and opinions from board and staff members, and sometimes external stakeholders, through an anonymous survey. Doing so gives you data to frame the conversation and provides context. It’s powerful for retreat participants to see data reflected back to them, especially when there is a divergence of opinions.
- Retreat facilitator. Don’t try to facilitate your own retreat. We believe this to be true based on experience, not just because we are consultants. Nonprofit executives and board members need to be retreat participants and benefit from the day in a way that is unique to their role. Trying to be both facilitator and participant is a challenge and creates a dynamic that can inhibit conversation. You want an impartial, objective, and expert facilitator who can make the most of the day and your investment.
- Retreat report. After the retreat, the facilitator should craft a report that summarizes the discussion, captures any decisions that were made, and articulates recommended next steps. The board and chief executive should review that report, ratify or adopt any needed actions, and begin implementation as soon as possible to keep the momentum going. The positive energy after a retreat is strong so don’t lose that by going back to the same old way of operating.
Our last tip is this — if you plan to hold a retreat in January, book a facilitator as soon as possible because schedules fill up quickly. And of course, we’d be honored to facilitate your next retreat.
We wish you well as you plan your board retreat for the new year and hope these best practices improve learning and engagement.
Article by: Kerri Laubenthal Mollard, Founder & CEO