Board Retreats


It has been suggested that board retreats may be the best tool for nonprofit organizations that are experiencing problems.
A retreat is a rare opportunity for the board to work at its “game” and to achieve a new standard of performance and satisfaction. Though the purposes for retreats vary, the main point is to use this opportunity to accomplish something that can’t be done through routine meetings.
Successful retreats those that generate meaningful discussion and practical action agendas are carefully choreographed, with specific attention to these five elements:

    1. Clear Goals, Leading to Practical and Specific Outcomes.
    2. Focused Agenda: The hours of a retreat will be put to best use if preparation has been done ahead of time to identify points that are uppermost in people’s minds.
    3. Comfortable Pace, Forward Movement: Usually a facilitator should monitor topics and ensure that comments are rounded out and that closure is achieved. Proper pacing involves leaving time for plenty of discussion, then moving on with a topic before it becomes tiresome.
    4. Frank, courteous, atmosphere, and an informal exchange are the main reasons for a retreat. Board meetings are often too short and formal for the give and take necessary to examine all sides of an issue. The retreat offers time to discuss, disagree, then productively resolve the disagreement and define the next steps. The opportunity for open discussion allows board members to gain a fuller sense of the experience and style of their colleagues, and to develop their own style as a working group.
    5. A Setting That Enables Informal Contact: Coffee breaks, meals, a chat in front of a fireplace, and walking outdoors between sessions all provide the shirt-sleeved environment in which people can get to know each other and learn more about what they can contribute and what they might like to get out of the experience. Personal satisfaction is one important reason most directors agree to the responsibility of serving on a board. The board retreat is one setting in which some personal satisfactions are best achieved.

Reviewing Board Performance

One use for a board retreat is to review board performance.

The goal for this type of retreat is to better understand how the board can “add value” to the organization. Management and the board are partners in governing and managing the organization; the board needs to see where its contribution can create competitive advantage, leading to maximum performance for the team.
Why should an outsider be better able to see the needs and design plans to meet them? Because advisers to not for profits witness and remedy similar problems in many settings. Not only do consultants provide a departure from usual spokespersons, they also offer objectivity and experience in conducting such sessions.
Involving outsiders in the planning and implementation of a retreat helps assure that its focus is upon critical issues. This focus is difficult for insiders to maintain, given the natural tendency to preserve working relationships and historical practices. The relatively small investment in occasional professional help pays big dividends in revealing realities, fostering consensus, and building new alliances among those responsible for the organization’s future.
The benefits of annually breaking routine to mobilize a board toward improved functioning cannot be overstated. A board retreat is certainly not a panacea for all leadership ailments, but it is a pro-active means of beginning to address them. By taking steps to challenge detrimental attitudes and poor habits, organizations position themselves to attract the meaningful levels of moral and financial support that bring stability and long range survival.
Dr. Wittich has conducted a large number of nonprofit and association board retreats. Contact him to find out what would be involved for your organization to hold a successful board retreat.