During my consulting career, I’ve heard the following phrases too many times to count:

  • “We don’t need a board retreat this year – everything’s on track.”
  • “Our nonprofit doesn’t have the budget for a retreat.”
  • “Our board meetings are really efficient, so we don’t need to have an all-day meeting.”
  • “My board chair has facilitation experience, so she’ll handle the retreat.”
  • We’ve had HORRIBLE experiences with board retreats, so we’d rather not.”

And on, and on, and on.

First, let’s cut to the chase.  Board retreats are a critical, annual competent of board governance.  And, equally important, board retreats facilitate the creation – and curation – of a healthy board culture.

I think we all know some of the reasons to conduct a board retreat:

  • To create or revisit the group’s mission, vision, and strategic plan
  • Clarify board – and staff – roles and responsibilities
  • Orient new board members
  • Reconnect and re-energize a stagnant board
  • Address critical issues or opportunities

However, bringing the entire board together in person can be a challenge. So, to get them to come—and really want to be there—you need to create a focused, meaningful, and enjoyable experience for everyone.

Here are some ideas for board retreats that really hit the mark.

Before the Retreat

Set a planning meeting with the Executive Director, board chair, and other team members (as needed) to:

  • Determine the retreat purpose and outcomes
  • Learn what’s most pressing for the organization
  • Assess board engagement, strengths and weaknesses

Ask the planning team:

  • What’s the purpose, anyway? What outcomes are you driving towards?
  • Is it time for strategic planning?
  • Are you trying to solve an important organizational issue?
  • Do you need to revitalize a stagnant board?
  • Are you working to better understand board dynamics?

In addition, discuss timing, duration, location, number of attendees, etc. You don’t need to finalize all the details yet, just enough to develop a draft agenda.

After meeting with nonprofit and board leadership, it’s a good idea to have brief “input” conversations with some or all board members to understand their views, gather topic ideas and get participants excited about the retreat. Input conversations can be conducted in person, or via a pre-retreat survey.

Some sample questions include:

  • What do you think is working well with our business?
  • What would you like to see us do more of, do better or do differently?
  • What do you think we should stop doing?
  • What are three things we should focus on over the next 12 months?
  • What is your vision for our business over the next three years?
  • What would help you feel more engaged and useful as a board member?
  • What would help our board work even more effectively together?

Retreat Meat: What are the ingredients?

Using the information from your leadership planning meeting and input conversations, craft an action-focused agenda that incorporates the retreat’s purpose and desired outcomes.

Some things to consider:

Stop the status and progress reporting! Instead, have attendees review status reports ahead of time and focus sessions on generating ideas, solving problems and making decisions.

  • This is the time to build relationships. Schedule time to eat together, walk together and learn about one another. It’s ideal if you can hold a retreat over two days that includes a social dinner.
  • Be flexible! You want time during day to accommodate hot topics or deeper dives into important issues.
  • Create specific segments with time blocks of one to three hours to help participants digest information, offer natural break points and provide variety. Have each session build upon one another in a logical order based on your goals.

As you create the agenda, decide what output you want from each session and plan for how to capture key issues, ideas, resources, outcomes and action steps from each session. This will make documenting the retreat much easier.

Consider supporting materials, resources and preparatory work that is going to help your board members stay focused and digest information. Make sure participants have the agenda, materials and instructions at least one week before the retreat. Communicate with board members throughout the planning process to answer questions, remind them about pre-work and help them with logistics.

Schedule ample time at the end to discuss action items, accountability, takeaways and celebration of your hard work.

It’s Retreat Time

 While it’s not uncommon for a board or staff member to facilitate a retreat, it’s not ideal. Having outside facilitation helps every participant fully engage in the retreat and their responsibility as a board member. Also, an outside facilitator also helps reduce bias and influence. They also may notice and address board issues or dynamics not obvious to attendees.

Other good practices for facilitation:

  • Announce the retreat objectives and outcomes, preview the agenda, cover any logistics and discuss how participants can get the most from their time together.
  • Set expectations up front for how you will facilitate the retreat, such as balancing participation, managing interruptions, encouraging constructive comments, etc.
  • Start with a warm-up that gets everyone talking. An easy exercise is to pose a couple of questions that participants discuss with one or two people next to them. It’s good to include one personal and one organizational question.
  • Capture highlights from each session using flipcharts, a note taker or recording device (video or audio). Some facilitators find it useful to use separate flipcharts for ideas, resources, action steps, “parking lot” or other categories as needed.
  • Check in periodically about participants’ comfort level, questions, concerns, speed and depth of content. The more transparent you are as a facilitator, the more the participants can relax and trust the process.
  • After a long or complex session, briefly summarize highlights and outcomes. If there is time, ask participants to share their own takeaways from the session.
  • When the discussion veers off the agenda, refer back to the retreat objectives and outcomes. Ask if this conversation supports their overall retreat goals, if the topic supersedes other agenda items or if it can be covered elsewhere. (Ahem. “Parking Lot”)
  • Have plenty of food, beverages, time for breaks and table toys to help quell the “fidgets.” Periodically check people’s energy (or lack of it) and take a short break if needed.

Retreat Dessert: Outcomes and Next Steps

For a retreat to be worthwhile, participants must know their ideas and decisions will actually go somewhere after the event. It’s equally important for board members to understand their own responsibilities to take actions after the retreat.

Here are some ideas for documenting the retreat and creating accountable action steps:

  • End each session by capturing key points, outlining next steps, assigning responsible parties and scheduling time frames. Use action verbs to clarify what needs to be done (write, call, review, schedule, plan, etc.).
  • Consider Accountability Partners – pairing people to accomplish tasks. This helps boost action and build board member relationships between meetings.
  • Ditch the “minutes” mindset. Try to organize retreat notes logically rather than strictly chronologically. Group related ideas and actions together.
  • Suggest ways to incorporate progress checks from the retreat into subsequent board meetings. For example, if you do a strategic plan, organize future board meeting agendas to parallel strategic goal areas from the plan.
  • Use the final agenda item on the retreat to summarize all next steps. Discuss how participants will hold themselves and others accountable for taking action. In addition, invite participants to share takeaways, appreciations, personal commitments and other comments.
  • Congratulate yourself AND your team. Retreats require planning, time, energy and focus. You did it.

Board retreats can be powerful events that help clarify your vision, address complex issues and energize a board. With collaborative planning, a steady focus on the desired outcomes, skillful facilitation, and the willingness to hold people accountable, you can transform your board retreat from a necessary evil to the event of the year!

If you’re looking to revitalize your next board retreat, let’s talk!  Here’s a link to my calendar to set up time to talk about how a board retreat can revitalize your organization.

You can schedule Board Tune-Up as part of your annual retreat. I am currently scheduling Board Tune-Ups for Spring 2020 and later. Look for a short course on board retreats coming in the Spring.