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How to get the most from nonprofit board retreats

By January 13, 2020June 2nd, 2020No Comments

Board meetings are great venues for working on the nitty-gritty business of running a nonprofit. But when you have big-picture issues to address, or when board members are having conflicts, you need to retreat.

Board of director retreats give leadership a day or three to delve into strategies that propel your nonprofit into the future, and to gaze inward to analyze how the board is working together.

Retreats “build that social glue, the cohesion of the board as a team beyond the structure of the board meeting,” says Jamie Orlikoff, president of Orlikoff & Associates Inc., a Chicago-based governance consulting firm that works with many nonprofit organizations.

Whereas monthly board meetings are based on “transactional discussions” that lead to decisions about fairly straight-forward issues, Orlikoff says they don’t lend themselves to “generative conversations” that don’t try to solve current problems but frame future problems the organization is likely to face.

“Generative conversations look around the corner, make sense of what’s happening in the world and how that impacts a nonprofit’s mission and organization,” Orlikoff says. “They’re very difficult to have during board meetings, particularly if you’re pressed for time. If the board is only doing transactional stuff, when a crisis happens, they have nothing to fall back on; they’re facing a decision that needs to be based on generative conversations that they’ve never had.”

If a retreat is structured correctly, board members can have free-flowing conversations that pay off big-time when the board is faced with messy issues. The big question is: How do you structure a board retreat to get the most from the time and money invested?

Orlikoff outlines some ways to make board retreats more productive.

Think hard about attendees

A typical board meeting often is filled with non-board leaderships – CEOs, CFOs – who often provide helpful information that affect transactional decisions. That leadership, however, can have a chilling effect on generative discussions, Orlikoff says, where board members should be letting their collective hair down and talking to each other.

“When senior staff is in the room, staff feel they must provide answers to even rhetorical questions. You can’t get good board conversation,” Orlikoff says.

During retreats, senior staff should, well, retreat. They may be on hand later to answer questions that come up in brainstorming sessions; but they shouldn’t be in the sessions.

Allow enough time to retreat

In the old days, when people weren’t so busy, busy, busy, board retreats typically were two-day affairs in appealing locations. Often, spouses were included.

Today, more and more boards are choosing single-day retreats located an easy drive from home. It’s not ideal, Orlikoff says, but it may be the only time commitment board members are willing or able to make.

One way to determine how long your retreat should be is to survey board members to learn how much time they’re willing to devote to a retreat.

Location, location, location

If you’re having a day-long retreat, choose an attractive location that’s easy to access but far away enough so board members aren’t tempted to duck out for quick trips to the office.

If your board will commit to a longer retreat, pick an appealing place, like Florida in winter or a mountain resort in summer.

Serve food and alcohol strategically

Make smart food and alcohol choices.

“Match the design of the retreat to the rhythms of people after they eat food,” Orlikoff says.

Hold information-filled presentations in the morning, when everyone is alert and has the most energy. Small-group, participatory sessions are best held after lunch to counteract the soporific effect of a heavy meal.

Serve alcohol at the end of the day, at the beginning of dinner, social hour, or humorous presentation. But keep the bar closed before work sessions and data-heavy presentations that require your board members to be alert and engaged.

Social time is vital

Built-in social hours aren’t a frill or perk of retreats; they’re vital to the purpose of the gathering and should take up about 20% of retreat time.

“Social time is very important, and more and more boards are giving it short shrift,” Orlikoff says. “Conflict is better dealt with if I know another board member’s family and hobbies, and we’ve laughed together. It’s critically important to build cohesion.”

Consider a facilitator

If your board functions well and is accustomed to engaging during retreats, you probably don’t need a facilitator to grease the skids.

However, if your board is new to retreats, or if conflicts exist among boards members, then a skilled facilitator can make your retreat more productive.

“A facilitator can ask uncomfortable questions that point out the elephants in the room,” Orlikoff says. “The more difficult the conversations need to be, the more you need a good facilitator.”

About the Author

Lisa Kaplan Gordon is a veteran content producer, e-book creator, and social media writer with two Pulitzer Prize nominations and three National Headliners Awards. Her writing has appeared in Washingtonian Magazine, Redbook, Yahoo!, AOL Real Estate, AOL Daily Finance, USA Today, and US Weekly, as well as major metro dailies. She writes several times a month for

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