by Tim Ardillo
Nonprofit Board retreats can be a productive tool to get key volunteers and staff on the same page. It’s an opportunity to devote a significant amount of time solely to an important topic or agenda item, without interrupting the normal business of a standing board meeting. We recommend setting aside time for you and your organization’s leadership to focus on important issues.
As for planning a retreat and the topics that need to be covered, there are several considerations that should influence your thinking:
- Set a clear agenda – Go into to your planning by setting clear objectives to accomplish. What are the important decisions or outcomes that need your board’s attention? Base the agenda topics specifically off the steps needed to achieve those outcomes and stay focused. We’ve found Saturday mornings or late afternoon/evening retreats work well. Depending on your agenda, set aside at least four hours.
- Set the tone – Early in the retreat ensure that your group feels like they are all on an equal playing field. Guide your group into key focus areas but allow for some flexibility in the discussion. When the group naturally goes off script, make a “parking lot” list for additional topics to be covered at the end of the retreat. We typically find that many items on the parking lot list get covered naturally during the course of the ongoing discussion during the retreat.
- Get board members talking and comfortable – You want to make sure that your board is comfortable and ready to talk and discuss important topics. Don’t dive directly into the content, but rather spend some time on the front end doing an ice breaker or team-building exercise. While your board members are professionals and busy people who may show some resistance about doing an ice breaker, ask them to trust you and just do it – you’ll be glad you did! I recently participated in a retreat where the facilitator also did a closing team-building exercise that reinforced with the group that they all have a role to play in ensuring that the work from the retreat gets implemented. It was highly effective.
- Do your research in advance – Sometimes you may need to do your homework (including giving your board members pre-work) prior to the retreat. Be armed with facts and figures (data) that provides context for the board as they make decisions. This could include conducting a survey, phone interviews, or even a focus group with your organization’s constituents about key issues to be discussed. It will be important to synthesize that research and work it into your agenda for the day.
- Consider a facilitator – Hiring a professional facilitator can be a very helpful decision. If you have a staff member or volunteer serve as the facilitator that person does not truly get to participate in the discussions. Best practice tells us that you want your volunteers doing the talking and your facilitator just guiding the conversation. Also, it is easier for a third party to move the conversation along when the group gets hung up on a topic. Where emotions are involved, the professional facilitator can encourage the group to move on and pick up that conversation later in the “parking lot” discussion.
- Provide food and breaks – Everyone needs a break from time to time! We have found groups can go about two hours and then they need a “set change,” nature break, and a snack. People like to eat and they are more likely to be attentive when they are not “hangry.”
- Wrap-up – Always conclude your retreat by restating what was decided during the day and confirming the next steps along with specific assignments. Tasks not assigned to someone to be completed by a specific date don’t get accomplished. Be sure to go back to your “parking lot” list and cover any topics that were not covered during the earlier discussion.
Board retreats allow you a devoted amount of time to get important work done that is not always a priority during a standing board meeting. And, they can be fun. By following the steps listed above, you can ensure a successful and productive session with your board of directors.