Monday, May 24, 2010

Board Retreats - Part 1: Why Have One, Themes and Planning

This week I plan to make several posts about Planning a Board Retreat. This is Part 1 in the series. It has been a while since I have written about this subject but quite a number of people arrive at this blog because they have searched on the topic. It's time for an update.

Why Have a Retreat?
A Board Retreat is the prime opportunity to discuss a matter of importance in-depth and without the normal Board business that gobbles up almost all meetings. Another essential part of board retreats is having the time and structure for building relationships. Boards are teams and people on teams must have respectful and trustful relationships with each other in order to work well together and make effective decisions.

Today many Boards may have reduced economic resources and taking the time to refocus on priorities will be time well spent.

The only thing worse for a Board member than a Board meeting that wastes their time is a Board Retreat that is a waste of time. It is important for a Board Retreat to be well planned for it to be successful. Here are some planning tips to help make your retreat a success.

Choosing the Retreat Theme
What will be the theme for your Board Retreat? Each Board has different needs and each year brings new issues that should be addressed. Decide what is most important for your Board to take the extra time for and then design your retreat around that theme. Some popular themes include:
•Board Development
-Developing Fundraising Expertise
•Strategic Planning
•Making Changes to Adjust to Economic Conditions
•Planning for a Major/Critical Issue (ex. Next ED, Building Plan)
•Team Development
•Plan for Major Anniversaries
•Develop the Board/Staff Relationship

Planning Questions and Activities
Start the planning for your retreat by asking these questions. What do you hope to accomplish by having the retreat and what will success look like? Later in the week I will provide two sample retreat outlines for very different retreats.

The program should be designed to keep the group’s interest and focus for an extended period of time. Board Members want to contribute to the outcome of a retreat. They do not want to just be talked at or participate in activities without a purpose. Make the most of a variety of techniques and keep them all tied to the theme of your retreat. Recommended techniques include:
•Pre-Retreat Materials - These can spark interest in participating in the retreat but they can also create a bunch of “Regrets.” Think this through before you send 100 pages of pre-retreat reading to Board members.
•Icebreakers – The best ones will have a relationship to the theme or the mission of the organization.
•Group Activities – Activities designed to build teamwork work well.
•Breakout Groups – This is the time for thoughtful discussion. Have retreat committee members facilitate the breakout groups so that the discussion stays on target.
•Presentations - This provides opportunity for learning and knowledge building about the organization, serving on Boards or the “industry” that the organization is in.
•Appreciative Inquiry – AI is a change management model that provides a positive approach to addressing change and has a variety of techniques that can be used. There are lots of books on this subject.
•Facilitation – Facilitated discussion and activities can help your retreat go smoothly.

When designing the activities keep these ideas in mind:
•Focus on your retreat goals
•Seek consensus
•Develop recommendations that will turn into action
•Wrap up should include your Next Steps action plan

How Long Should the Retreat Be Anyway?
It used to be common for nonprofit Board Retreats to be on Friday night and all day Saturday. But on every retreat I have been at in the last several years with this design the feedback always says make it one day. More retreat facilitation requests I get today are for a one day retreat. Another popular format is starting at 1 PM with a light lunch and concluding with dinner at 7 PM. This format works especially if there is a single objective/focus for the retreat. But I truly discourage half day events that do not include a meal as they seem to take on the aura of a “regular” Board meeting and don’t allow for the crucial team building which make Board retreats effective.

Later in the week I will discuss planning your Board retreat with a facilitator, provide a Board Retreat leadership checklist and two sample retreat outlines for very different retreats. Check back on Wednesday for Part 2.

This material may be published as a chapter in a book later this year. I hope you'll provide me some feedback in the comments so that my material is the best it can be.

Here are a couple of resources that you can get at Amazon on this subject.


Anne W. Ackerson said...

Hi, Marion --

Thanks so much for your really thorough and thoughtful post. I am sometimes asked about the frequency of retreats. At a minimum, I think they should be annual events -- there is always a need for programmatic assessment/evaluation and review of the strategic plan. There are generally new people who have joined the board during a year's time and they'll benefit greatly from a retreat.

I also firmly believe that if a nonprofit is going to remain (or become) flexible it has got to stay on top of the issues and trends affecting it. Retreats are good vehicles for looking at big picture topics like that.

I don't think I know of organizations that hold MORE than one retreat a year, but I don't see why multiple retreats (say 2-3 a year) wouldn't be out of the question. I think they could make for a very sharp board and staff.


Gail Perry said...

Hi Marion, great info. Let's make the point that annual retreats are simply essential for every board. They are especially important for the reason you mentioned above: Relationship and team building among the board members.

It's so important that the board members create collegiality and community among themselves in order to work smoothly together. How can a group of people who hardly know each other run a million dollar operation?

That said, the retreat has got to be well organized with followup actions in order to be a productive waste of time. (I have suffered through poorly organized retreats myself as a board member!)

So careful planning is essential too, as you so aptly point out. I have seen that the one factor that can make or break the retreat is the choice of a facilitator. Too often a volunteer facilitator runs the session with poor results.

Careful planning and research regarding your facilitator and agenda are the best insurance for a successful retreat.

Unknown said...

Great advice you have laid out for organizations.

I was especially pleased to see that “developing fundraising expertise” has a place on your agenda. I run a benefit auction firm. I know that of those organizations holding benefit auctions, the auction often generates a significant amount of their annual budget.

The earlier the Board becomes aware of and involved in the auction gala, the more successful it is. Some groups only involve the Board once the planning of the event (i.e. the procurement effort) is underway. But it’s much better if the Board is tied in earlier. That way – when it comes time to start the auction planning in earnest – the charity can reference back to the retreat and say, “Remember that conversation we had about the auction during our retreat? Remember the discussions we had about how we can all pitch in to make it a success? Now is that time to make good on that.”

With your approach, the request would be a reminder of what each Board member already agreed to do when they were at the retreat. That is a much better approach than, say, trying to enlist Board support and “explain” the auction when the charity is in the midst of planning it.

Keep up the good work!