A retreat provides the opportunity to step away from the ‘meeting as usual’ approach to address larger organizational issues. This could mean developing a strategic plan, determining an annual work plan, or having a strategic discussion about the organization’s programming mix and priorities. Whatever its purpose, a successful retreat requires careful planning, adept execution, and thorough follow-up.
First, determine the purpose of the retreat. Does the board need to develop an annual work plan or is it time to develop a new strategic plan for the organization? What are the timely organizational issues that would benefit from the focused discussion that a retreat setting allows? Once you determine the purpose of the retreat, you can determine who should attend and decide how much time the retreat will require.
Most annual retreats involve participation from the full board, but may include staff or committee members as well. For example, the retreat’s purpose may be annual planning for the board, but it is likely that the board will need information from the organization’s management team. Will you have the staff provide that information to the board in advance of the retreat or is it more efficient to have the staff attend the retreat? If committee work plans are an important part of your board’s annual work plan, you may decide to invite committee members to the retreat. Once you determine who should participate, find a date and time that works for the group. Scheduling far enough in advance helps ensure good attendance.
Since a retreat is a time away from the usual meeting approach, it’s nice to choose a location that communicates that. This could mean a meeting room at another organization or a finding a site at a park or retreat center. Whatever location you choose, make sure that the space is large enough to comfortably accommodate your group, that it’s conducive to large and small group discussion, and that it’s relatively convenient for your retreat participants.
In addition to finding a comfortable location, plan to provide snacks and drinks for participants. Food not only creates a more social, relaxed atmosphere, it also helps participants maintain their energy levels and focus throughout the work of the retreat.
A retreat needs a facilitator who can effectively manage the group’s discussion without joining in or offering his own perspectives. Expecting your board chair or chief executive to facilitate the board retreat limits their participation in the conversation and restricts the group’s access to their expertise and perspectives. Therefore, it’s best to bring in a skilled outside facilitator for your retreat. Depending upon your organization’s budget and culture, you can hire someone or use a volunteer.
The facilitator should review the purpose of the retreat and work with the board chair and chief executive to develop the retreat’s agenda. Even though a retreat may be longer than a regular board meeting, avoid the temptation to overload its agenda. If there are multiple ‘big’ topics that the board needs to discuss, look for a larger theme that might link these together.
Although you may plan that your retreat provide time for team-building and for participants to get to know one another better, putting the words ‘icebreaker’ or ‘team-building exercise’ on the agenda can have a chilling effect on those intentions. Certainly, ensure that participants know one another’s names and provide opportunities for people to work with one another, but avoid labeling these activities or conducting cookie-cutter exercises. Work with the facilitator to design an agenda that helps group cohesion develop naturally and you’ll ensure better participation and team-building.
Following the retreat, provide participants with a summary of the discussion and the decisions made during the retreat. The summary should provide the information necessary for participants to follow-up on items from the retreat. Additionally, ask participants to evaluate the retreat and its components so you can consider this feedback when planning your next retreat.
A well-planned and well-executed retreat provides the environment for thoughtful and strategic conversations about the organization and its future. It also allows time for board and staff members to get to know one another better, which strengthens the working relationships within the organization. Although it can be challenging to find the time and resources that a retreat requires, when it is conducted well, it lays the groundwork for organizational success throughout the rest of the year.