How to Plan an Exceptional Board Retreat

Kate Hayes, Director, Catalyze Ecosystem, Contributor, Echoing Green
June 3, 2019

It’s no secret that building a strong board of directors is critical to the success of any nonprofit organization. However, curating how board members work together is often overlooked. According to a National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, there are two board characteristics that matter most: the board’s understanding of its roles and responsibilities and its ability to work as a collaborative team toward shared goals.

Most nonprofit boards meet only a few times each year, for a short period of time, with a structured agenda. Throughout my career as a nonprofit leadership expert, I've seen firsthand that off-site gatherings allow the space necessary for board members to foster accountability, enhance group participation and develop strong bonds that can lead to effective governance practices and, ultimately, an organization’s success.

Consider the benefits

A well-run, well-executed retreat can lay the foundation for everything a nonprofit board does, primarily because it offers a much-needed opportunity for leaders with different backgrounds and experiences to establish a strong and productive group dynamic. In order to be effective, a board needs to develop a deep culture of trust, which takes time and intentionality. A board retreat can offer just that — time and space for relationship-building and setting the foundation for how the group will work together. A strong group dynamic coupled with a culture of trust allow members to deliberate candidly, broach difficult topics and take calculated risks.

Even if your board has strong internal relationships, it’s inevitable that the board composition will fluctuate due to term limits, turnover and new members. Frequent board retreats — held at least once a year — are key in order to maintain an effective group dynamic as your board evolves.  

Additionally, an off-site retreat enables outside-the-box thinking and sparks new, creative ideas. In a traditional board room setting, meetings often occur in an unimaginative conference room and at the end of the day, when people are tired. In this environment, it's easy to fall into the routine of going through the motions. A retreat offers an opportunity to step away from day-to-day duties and think big, while also fostering the potential to bring newly acquired knowledge back to traditional monthly or quarterly board meetings.

Finally, a retreat creates an opportunity to enhance knowledge, particularly as board members may have varying levels of experience with the organization and its mission. Even among those who have been with the organization for a while, a staggering 80% of board members have never received board-related training. An expert could be brought in or, alternatively, a retreat can be coupled with a site visit, so board members can connect directly with the mission and the people who benefit from the organization.

Don’t sweat the logistics

There is a perception that a board retreat should be upscale and highly produced, but there are many cost-effective ways to structure a retreat that is equally effective.

A retreat can last anywhere from half a day to several days, depending on the availability and financial abilities of the board. Shorter off-site meetings often won’t require the time or expense of overnight accommodations but more time together can offer board members greater opportunity to get to know each other’s strengths, experience training opportunities and discuss the future outlook of the organization.

If a longer meeting would benefit the board but money is in short supply, consider unconventional alternatives. A retreat can be held at a board member’s home or, alternatively, members — particularly those with early-stage organizations—can foot their own travel costs. Just 19% of nonprofit organizations reimburse their board members for travel costs.

Establish expectations early

It’s best to start laying the groundwork at least two months before the retreat occurs. Begin by surveying participants about what they want to accomplish. Getting that input upfront can create a stronger, shared agenda, and it can also increase the ownership each member feels toward the success of the retreat. Once survey results are compiled, share those expectations with the group. What conversations are prioritized during the retreat? How will activities be facilitated? What will be expected of each board member?

It can also be valuable to provide attendees with pre-reading materials. In addition to industry-specific material, prime attendees for board-building exercises by distributing articles about shared values, consent, appreciative inquiry and assumption of positive intent.

Set the stage at the outset of the meeting

Before any strategic discussions occur, it can be effective for the board to create its own list of group norms. Developing these together can boost commitment to the norms while also making it easier to hold members accountable as the retreat progresses. Group norms could include behaviors like being present, asking curious questions, welcoming silence and noticing judgement or assumptions. To progress as a cohesive unit, it is useful to put aside any preconceived ideas that one experience or viewpoint carries more weight than another.

In order to facilitate the most productive board retreat, members need to prepare for difficult discussions. Outlining how to best navigate those discussions is crucial — the following steps will help the board prepare:

  • Decide together how the group will identify the start of what could be a messy conversation — there is a lot of power in making the implicit explicit. Then, determine what steps can be taken to effectively navigate the exchange before launching into the discussion.
  • Create an environment where it’s permissible to change one’s mind. Only the most dysfunctional boards consist of leaders who never reconsider ideas.
  • Identify shared definitions and ways of thinking, particularly as they pertain to inclusivity. Diversity of thought should be encouraged, as it often leads to more effective and elegant solutions.

Once the retreat gets moving, start each day or session with a “pulse check,” which can offer attendees an opportunity to connect with one another’s needs throughout the event. Ask members how they are that day, what they need to be productive and what they hope to offer during the session. One member may have a sick child at home. Another may not understand the board’s shared vision. Being aware of these potential roadblocks upfront can help foster understanding among members when one takes several calls from home during group time or makes seemingly off-task remarks.

Then, check the group’s perceived effectiveness of the meeting at certain intervals, like at the beginning of each day or every few sessions. If there are procedural concerns, crowd-source a new solution and put it into action at the next session. Immediate implementation will increase ownership and buy-in during the remainder of the retreat.

Have the right people in place

It’s easy for even the most effective group to get stymied by differing opinions, group think or unexpected side conversations. Assigning the following roles can help keep a productive meeting on track.

First and foremost is the meeting facilitator, who is tasked with keeping discussions focused and on topic. A smart choice would be someone capable of removing herself from the conversation while avoiding any personal agenda.

Other key roles can include a note taker and time tracker, to keep the meeting running as expected. It can also be helpful to assign one or more people the task of calling out board members who break already-agreed-upon group norms.

A retreat also offers an opportunity to bring in outside experts who can offer often much-needed training on industry topics, governance and fundraising practices.

Bring learned experiences back to the board room

Once developed, it’s important to transition these newly developed ideas and group ideas from the retreat to the boardroom. Start each meeting with the “pulse check,” and then spend five minutes of each meeting brainstorming ways to enhance meeting procedures. Spend the last five minutes of each board meeting evaluating how effectively the group followed its own guidelines for success.

Use the team’s newly-acquired team-building talents to consistently look for ways to enhance communication, be it among board members or between the board and staff.

Finally, whether at home or on retreat, infuse some fun. When members enjoy the experience, they look forward to future team building opportunities, business developments and even problems to be solved.

The views, opinions and recommendations in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions and recommendations of First Republic Bank.