Every December, we start getting phone calls from nonprofits in a panic. They’ve scheduled a January board retreat and haven’t done anything to prepare. Well, it’s October already. You need to get started now! Here are some tips we’ve shared in the past. We offer them up again to help you plan ahead for your most brilliant board retreat yet!
DO: Hire a facilitator at least two months in advance.
Good facilitators get booked up, particularly for the early part of the year when nonprofits tend to plan their retreats. More importantly, they need time to get to know your organization, talk to your board members and really map out a good agenda.
If the topics you’ll be addressing at the retreat are particularly difficult or even contentious, definitely use an experienced facilitator to navigate the tough decisions.
Don’t plan on using a facilitator? No worries. Here’s how you can create your best retreat ever:
DO: Keep the agenda simple.
Don’t muddy your annual board retreat with business that should be happening at your regular board meetings. Every item on the retreat agenda is going to take longer than you expect, so pad the timeline and avoid the frustrating experience of sending your board off without achieving the goals of the day.
DO: Ground the retreat in one or two high-level questions.
The purpose of a retreat is to remove the board from their every day responsibilities and create the space to think. Honor that basic principle and establish an agenda that focuses on a couple of really important things the board needs to grapple with in a thoughtful way. Here are some examples of the types of questions you might be addressing to give you an idea of the level of conversation that should be happening:
What are our strategic priorities as an organization for this year?
Should we launch a social enterprise this year?
What do we need to do to plan for a capital campaign?
How can we prepare our organization for major shifts in our sector?
What strategies can we deploy to offset an anticipated loss in revenue?
What is our transition plan for the agency?
And so on. You get the drift.
DON’T: Avoid difficult conversations.
A retreat is the perfect time to dig into issues that have been gnawing at your organization. Avoiding the elephant in the room just doesn’t work. Trust me. We’ve tried it. What happens is that everyone behaves politely and then leaves feeling like the entire retreat was a total waste of time.
DO: Gauge the mood of the board.
Establish the key questions you want to address at the retreat and then float them past each member of the board in one-on-one conversations before you finalize the retreat agenda. This task can be shared by a few members of the board and/or a facilitator. These should be confidential conversations, but the feedback should be shared (without attribution) and the retreat agenda modified accordingly.
DON’T: Skip the last suggestion.
The best retreats have no surprises. Know where your board’s head is at before you walk into the room.
DO: Leave LOTS of room for discussion.
Keep presentations to a minimum, keep them high-level and on point. Then let the board talk to each other.
DO: Establish ground rules.
If you don’t have a professional facilitator, you’ll need to ask the board to set some ground rules for managing the conversation. Determine how you’ll make sure everyone participates and how you’ll keep people from dominating the discussion. Also figure out how you’ll make decisions. Consensus? Vote? Other?
DON’T: Forget to have fun.
The best way to have fun at a retreat is to get creative. Make sure you break the board into small groups at least once or twice and have them brainstorm solutions to a problem or create a vision for the future or whatever you need them to do. Having them present to the group and gain feedback is always the highlight of a retreat.
DO: Give the board the data they need to make good decisions.
Whatever the questions you’re tackling at the retreat, chances are the board will need some background information. This might be as simple as sharing your agency’s current business model or trends in your client demographics. It might involve financial forecasting or program projections. Don’t fall into the trap of overwhelming them with too much data, but do give them enough that you don’t have to postpone decision-making because they feel uninformed.
DO: Keep it short-ish.
Don’t try to cram everything into three hours, but don’t push everyone much past six hours. That’s when you reach the point of diminishing returns.
DON’T: Waste too much time on team building and ice breakers.
There. I’m a professional facilitator and I’ve said it. Dedicate no more than 30 minutes of your retreat to “getting to know you” activities. People are busy. Use their time wisely. If you’re intent on engaging the board at a social level, have a gathering after the retreat.
A well-planned board retreat will not only help your agency move forward, it will strengthen the board as a working team. We promise you, nothing will help a group of people bond more quickly than thoughtful discussion and decision making around important topics for a mission they love.