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. Board retreats can also be an effective tool for building camaraderie and collaboration among board members. According to the BoardSource Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, 42 percent of nonprofit boards hold annual retreats for their board members. The report indicates that providing this type of social time can be impactful when it comes to increasing the level of satisfaction board members feel with their board service. CEO’s of boards which held annual retreats were more likely to report their board worked as a collaborative team and that their board members were eager to serve the maximum number of terms on the board.
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 – The agenda should include an ice breaker or get-acquainted exercise, a conversation or reminder that focuses the board members on the mission of the organization, education or training on the topic covered at the retreat, and small group sessions whenever possible so that members can work together to solve critical issues. The agenda should always conclude with key takeaways and next steps.
- 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 provide 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 and staff.
Tim Ardillo, CFRE, brings to JGA’s clients guidance from a breadth of fundraising experience across a variety of nonprofit sectors. With a development career that spans more than 20 years, Tim has experience in fundraising efforts ranging from annual fund development, major and planned giving and campaigns. His most recent experience as Director of Institutional Advancement for the Indianapolis Zoo gave him the opportunity to serve as Campaign Director as he led the Zoo to the successful completion of a more than $34 million capital campaign and the launch of a $10 million endowment campaign.
Tim has facilitated many board and strategic planning retreats for clients at JGA. He works collaboratively with them to design agendas and exercises that maximize results. His consensus-building skills help to move groups to action and facilitate bringing everyone into the conversation.