How to Have a Winning Board Retreat

A well-functioning, cohesive and engaged board of directors is a crucial factor for your organization’s ability to fulfill its mission. As a nonprofit organization continues to grow in both size and significance, it is increasingly vital for board members to understand their evolving role and the importance of their contributions to successful mission fulfillment.

One way to help support your board members’ learning and engagement is to hold an annual board retreat.

The first thing to understand is that board retreats are different from regular board meetings beyond the significant impact of holding a retreat off-site in a unique location from where board meetings are normally held.

Make a Retreat Unique

A retreat is not simply a longer board meeting. The agenda for your retreat should be entirely different from your normal meeting agenda. Also, board retreats should be at least a half day – a full day is even better.

There are three key reasons for having an annual board retreat: team building, strategic planning and board development/education (including fundraising). Holding a retreat allows your board time to regroup, reconnect and recharge.

1. Team Building

Although you may know your board members, they may not know one another all that well. Most people come into a board meeting, sit in the same seat where they always sit, go through the meeting and then leave. How are they expected to get to know one another if there is no time for socializing and team building?

Time needs to be spent on encouraging board members to know one another better and begin to develop personal ties. I have known people who served on the same board for more than five years and never realized that their kids played on the same sports team and they knew many of the same people until I facilitated their board retreat and we engaged in an interactive exercise. The experience provided new connections and let them relate on another level.

Successful board retreats should also include a “mission moment,” where you remind people why they serve on the board. It might be a short video or presentation by a staff member or a testimonial by someone served by the organization. You want to re-engage people with personal stories of mission impact and how their work as board members support mission fulfillment.

2. Strategic Planning

An annual board retreat is the ideal time to advise the board of progress made and/or the difficulties faced when trying to achieve strategic goals. Be realistic, however – they are there to help you make difficult decisions.

It might also be a time to review and revise your strategic plan, if necessary.

If you don’t have a strategic plan or if your mission and vision need to be updated, you can set the stage and gain input along with the necessary buy-in to the process. An outside facilitator can be especially useful here if you are inexperienced in developing strategic plans or revising mission statements.

3. Board Development and Education (Including Fundraising)

If your board is an EXCEPTIONAL board, consider yourself lucky! Many nonprofits I speak with, however, have room for improvement (sometimes a lot of room!) before their board of directors is fully engaged.

A retreat is the perfect time to provide education and discuss board development topics with your board members.

Start by reviewing the roles and responsibilities of your board members. Everyone should be clear about the expectations of board members by the organization and they, in turn, need to be honest about their ability and willingness to meet these expectations. You may ask your board members to sign a form acknowledging their roles and responsibilities as a way of recommitting to the organization for the coming year.

Do you have a board that tends to overstep its boundaries? Perhaps you can participate in an exercise that focuses on responsibilities of board members as they relate to nonprofit leadership and staff.

Many nonprofits expect their board members to be actively involved in fundraising. However, few administrators take the time to actually train their board in how to be effective fundraisers. And if you aren’t training them, who is?

Use your retreat to re-engage your board members in fundraising. Provide exercises and scenarios to help them get over their fear of fundraising and help them learn from one another. Also, explore with them ways that the board can be involved in fundraising beyond making “the big ask” (more on this next month).

Benefits of Holding a Retreat Off-Site

A board retreat should take place away from the site of daily business, if possible. This provides a different perspective and going to a new location helps to generate creative and strategic thinking among the group.

Whenever I facilitate a retreat, I push hard to have it held off-site. When there has been resistance, it is inevitably because of cost. However, you don’t need to spend a lot of money on a fancy retreat location. Perhaps one of your board members has an office with a spacious meeting room you could use. Or you could approach the bankers and attorneys who service your organization (whom you are already paying via their fees) and ask them to use that lovely board room that is going unused. They might even offer to donate lunch for the retreat. Remember, it never hurts to ask.

Pros and Cons of Hiring a Board Retreat Facilitator

The only downside of hiring an outside facilitator is the cost. That’s it. However, if you approach this as an investment in your board and, ultimately in mission fulfillment, then it is well worth the expense.

The benefits of hiring a consultant as a facilitator include providing expertise and professionalism to your retreat. An experienced facilitator can be an invaluable resource in retreat planning and execution.

They ensure that retreats are efficient and effective, hold workshops and exercises that help you reach your goals and elevate the event’s importance.

Facilitators who are unencumbered by existing politics can provide a unique perspective, guide discussions and decision making. They also help to develop a relevant agenda, facilitate group activities and keep the retreat on schedule.

Conclusion

There are many ways to design a board retreat, but be sure that it is well planned and has realistic and meaningful objectives. Getting full commitment from the board and executive leadership is key.

Don’t forget to allow time for informal interactions among board members. They don’t often have time to connect and foster relationships; a retreat is a prime opportunity to do so.

Wishing you all the best for your board retreat and to having an exceptional, engaged board of directors!

For more information on board retreats, contact us at Info@AccreditationGuru.com or 212.209.0240.

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