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Making Your Nonprofit Board Retreat a Success

If you’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for a while, you’ve probably heard talk of board retreats. These gatherings, which usually happen once a year, are a chance for your nonprofit’s board of directors to get together, bond, and talk about the future of your organization. When your retreat is successful, your board members leave feeling inspired and excited. The key? Planning a weekend that’s both fun and productive.

What Is a Board Retreat?

Imagine how much you could accomplish if you booked a cabin in the woods, turned off your phone, and spent a full day working on your most important project. That’s the goal of a nonprofit retreat — to get away from it all. Your board members step away from their jobs and responsibilities, all to focus on your organization’s big-picture goals. It’s also a chance for your trustees to get to know each other, so they feel like a team.

Board Retreats vs. Board Meetings

Board meetings and board retreats are very different animals. During board meetings, your members probably talk about day-to-day tasks such as individual donors or upcoming fundraising events. They stick to an agenda. A board retreat, on the other hand, allows higher-level thinking. It gives your trustees the luxury of time to brainstorm, to toss around ideas, or to make progress on long-term planning.

Pin Down a Clear Goal

In order for your retreat to be a success, it needs a clear goal. A retreat is the perfect time to tackle the biggest needs within your nonprofit. If you’re not sure what you need most, think about the topics that come up most often in conversations around the office or during board meetings. Is your mission statement confusing or outdated? Does your strategic plan only extend through next year? Do you need better staff-board communication? Those are all potential areas you may want to address during a retreat.

Once you hone in on one or two issues, it’s time to think about takeaways. For instance, if your mission statement isn’t working any more, your board members might write a new statement during your retreat. When your board members know exactly what they need to accomplish, they can use their time more effectively.

Location, Location, Location

Next to a goal, the location is the most important part of your retreat. The trick? Finding a place that’s fun and relaxing, but with room to work. Ideally, your retreat should feel very different from a conference room. This change of scenery can help your board members slow down and think. If you have the budget, a dedicated retreat centre can take care of everything for you. If not, simply hop onto a site like Airbnb and rent a large house in the woods for one or two nights. On a seriously tight budget? Try renting an event or meeting space across town for the day or retreating to a board member’s back yard.

Before the Retreat: Planning

Like any business activity, your retreat requires planning. Once you have your main goal in mind, it’s a good idea to sit down with the board to figure out a schedule. This helps to get everyone on the same page and prevent confusion during the retreat. Your schedule may include the following elements:

  • Full-group and small-group sessions
  • Which board members should attend each session
  • Rules about mobile phones or other electronics
  • Times for breaks, meals, and socializing
  • Retreat activities such as ice breakers or team building events
  • Roommate assignments, if necessary

If your goal is to write a new strategic plan, for example, you might kick off the retreat by getting everyone together to talk about the organization’s overall direction. Then, you could break out into smaller groups to write different sections of the new plan. Most importantly, allow some room for flexibility. That way, if your board is in the zone, they can stay focused on one topic instead of moving on.

Don’t Forget the Fun

When your board members are comfortable with each other, it can do wonders for your organization. Friendly boards work together better and have fewer conflicts. For that reason, feel free to make socializing an important part of your board retreat. You might try a moonlit snowshoe through the woods, a barbecue by the pool, or an adventure ropes course. Your goal is to create a fun setting that allows members to let down their guards. After the retreat is over, your members probably won’t remember exactly what they said in a meeting, but they won’t forget climbing a mountain together.

Should You Hire a Professional Facilitator?

When you need to get some serious work done at your retreat, a professional facilitator can be a lifesaver. This person runs your retreat. In particular, they keep your group on task, point out biases, and provide a fresh perspective. Does your board tend to get bogged down in discussion? Do members have very different viewpoints? Does everyone want to participate? If so, a facilitator is a great choice. When you can make room in your budget, this investment can pay off in terms of productivity.

A fun, well-organized retreat can have serious benefits for your nonprofit. With the right blend of purpose and fun activities, these events can bring your board closer together and push your nonprofit forward.

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