I once was talking with an executive director of a nonprofit agency that hosted an annual board retreat. She sounded exasperated as she described the situation this way, “Every fall the board has the same discussion, asking –so what do we do at our board retreat this year?” As we spoke I asked her what an ideal staff retreat would look like from her perspective. “Well,” she said, “we ultimately do make pretty good use of our time but it never seems intentional. More than anything else I wish the board was intentional about the annual retreat. I mean, after all, aren’t board retreats supposed to be big and strategic?” I proceeded to share with this director that retreats should be functional, intentional and big in relationship to the value of the desired outcome. In short, I suggested, there are likely four main frameworks for board retreats.
Continuing Education: Throughout the year, boards often get bogged down with the multiple roles of governance and agency support. Board retreats can be great opportunities for continuing education. Education may relate specifically to board-related duties and may be driven by pressing or current needs, such as risk management, fiscal accountability or training related to the agency’s mission and goals. Short of a pressing educational need for the board, a continuing education retreat might be developed around expanding the general capacity of the board. Continuing education that focuses on marketing, communication, or conflict resolution could help expand the knowledge of members both in their board roles and in their broader professional roles.
Connection and Community: A second framework for a board retreat is to use the time to focus on connection and community. With a connection and community focus, this type of retreat may be a joint event involving both board and agency staff. I have seen such retreats effectively used when an agency has navigated a major transition such as rapid growth or a significant crisis. Alternatively, a connection and community retreat may also be useful when a significant number of new board members are assimilating to the organization. Goals for such retreats may center on cultivating mutual understanding of agency’s programs, or to cultivate a shared passion for the mission, or can focus on creating connections between people. The process for such retreats may use team-building exercises, listening circles, story-telling or other interpersonal group processes to structure the time accordingly. Increasing community and connectivity can strengthen relationships for the year ahead.
Celebration and Reflection: The third framework for a retreat is to celebrate and reflect. Different that a volunteer recognition party or a social gathering, retreats that focus on celebration and recognition are designed as catalyst events rather than motivational events. Retreats of this nature may be associated with a milestone like a 20th anniversary, the completion of a capital campaign, the successful merger of two agencies, or may precede a milestone event. This type of retreat differs from a motivational recognition program in the retreat serves as a catalyst for the planning and implementation of the next chapter. For example the frame of a recognition event is, “we have paid off our building thank you everyone for your dedication and hard work,” but the message for a celebration and reflection retreat would be, “we have paid off our building now it is time to develop a satellite office across town to expand out services.”
Strategic Planning: A fourth framework is the traditional strategic planning retreat. The challenge of a strategic planning retreat is that it can’t be designed as an event but must be designed as one stage in the sequence of a strategic planning process. Single event-based strategic planning may produce a document but because the event has a beginning and an end, the plan often lacks the energy and movement of a staged strategic planning process. Strategic planning is not an annual event but is an ongoing iterative process. Having said this, however, making strategic planning a focus of a retreat can be a powerful focusing stage in a strategic planning if it is part of a larger momentum building process.
The important consideration in designing an effective board retreat is to build the agenda around a single framework as the focus of the group’s activity. This is not to say that a retreat won’t have activities drawn from more than one framework (i.e., a strategic retreat with a team building exercise) but the key is to purposefully design the agenda to achieve a single goal. It is simply not realistic to spend five or six hours together and educate and celebrate and connect and develop a strategic plan. Effective retreats focus on one theme with the purpose of using the theme to move the organization forward over the next year. Common to all of these frameworks is movement. Capacity building is about moving your board forward. Connection and community establishes working relationships. Celebration and connection lay the foundation for new achievements. Strategic planning is about working towards the future.
As is common to many of the posts on this blog is my foundational belief that an agency that breaks out of the routine and rethinks fundamental group processes will prosper and grow. Investing in strategic process design and strategic facilitation across all business practices will yield significant dividends and that includes investing the annual board retreat process. Focus and movement are for times when there is more at stake than running a good meeting.
PS: I wrote a second post on this topic here: Maximizing the Limits of a Strategic Planning Retreat