How long has it been since your nonprofit board held a retreat? Was it productive or a waste of time? Did it leave everyone reenergized or reeling from boredom?
Planning is the key to success.
A board retreat is an unparalleled opportunity for progress forward. It can be a powerful way to address head-on some of the more challenging issues facing a board and the organization it governs. Here are some tips to ensure your retreat is powerful, productive, and positive.
Long before your retreat, you will want to make some decisions such as:
>>Why are you having a retreat?
Some organizations schedule a retreat because they have heard it’s the thing to do. But the most successful boards conduct a retreat for a specific purpose: to revisit their mission, vision, and values; or begin a 3-5 year strategic plan; or create an operational plan for the coming 12 months; or have a targeted strategic discussion about an issue of importance to the nonprofit.
>>Where will you hold the retreat?
It is best to identify a place large enough to accommodate your group and yet inviting and nurturing. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. Just a place where your group will feel comfortable and be outside of their normal surroundings. Appropriate audio-visual equipment and white boards help a lot too. If there are spaces for break-out groups, even better.
>>Who will attend?
This depends on your goals for the retreat and the culture of your organization. If your board wants to simply take a few hours to plan its operational work for the coming year based on your strategic plan, you might consider inviting only board members and perhaps some senior staff members present. However, if you are having a retreat to revisit your mission or begin a strategic plan, inviting stakeholders in addition to board and staff can give you valuable perspective about your organization’s role and value in the larger community.
>>Will you engage the services of a facilitator?
The most successful retreats work in partnership with a skilled facilitator. Even if you have someone on your board who is an accomplished leader, it is always best to use an outside facilitator to bring objectivity and focus to the process. Besides, if someone on your board or staff facilitates the meeting they can’t participate in the same capacity as others. Do your research beforehand to find the right facilitator for your group.
>>When will you have it and how long will it last?
Most retreat attendees prefer a Saturday morning. Many people work during the week and feel more relaxed taking a few hours on a weekend to plan. Some retreats last a whole day, and sometimes two days. However, most people prefer a shorter version of 4-5 hours on a Saturday morning. You can really accomplish a lot within that time frame if you plan in advance.
Conducting interviews prior to the retreat helps achieve focus.
Once you choose a facilitator for your retreat, s/he can conduct interviews with some key staff and board members. Asking them what would represent key outcomes from the retreat will help the facilitator create an agenda tailored to the specific needs of the organization. There is nothing worse than feeling like someone is using a “cookie cutter” approach to your retreat. These interviews will help you “begin with the end in mind” as Stephen Covey suggests and yield the results you are hoping for.
Engaging participants’ imagination creates forward motion.
I like beginning a planning retreat by inviting attendees to connect with their passion and reasons for being involved in the mission. Simon Sinek’s video, Start With Why, can help get everyone in a creative frame of mind. After watching the short clip, ask everyone to pair up with their neighbor and talk about their personal “why” in regard to the nonprofit’s work. Then each person can introduce their neighbor by telling about the person’s “why.” This exercise helps each person get in touch with their deep reasons for being part of the group and they are ready to begin imagining their future.
Looking back to describe success helps create unique perspective.
Begin by imagining it is one year or three years from the date of your retreat. Everyone is celebrating their huge success at achieving the goals. Ask attendees to describe what the organization looks like from that successful vantage point. This list of attributes will be valuable in identifying the organization’s future goals.
Identifying barriers to success helps navigate potential obstacles.
Next, ask everyone to make a list of the barriers that stand in the way of achieving the attributes just identified. Then divide into small groups to create action plans for each barrier. Report out to the group and, after a rich group discussion, create timelines and accountabilities for accomplishing the action plans.
The facilitator can then write up a summary report of the various findings and make recommendations for future work. This will help keep the organization on track and successfully accomplishing their goals.
Whether the purpose of a nonprofit’s retreat is to review the mission statement, create a strategic plan, conduct team building, or generate an annual work plan, having clear direction and formal planning will ensure a higher level of success. We always want attendees to leave the retreat feeling like their time has been well spent and the results are valuable to the organization.