May 1, 2024

Board Retreat Agenda: 3 Questions CEOs Ask to Build Them

It’s time to plan your board retreat. You want the retreat to benefit your nonprofit, the board, and frankly, to make your job easier. You don’t want any board retreat. You want a dynamic board retreat and you need a board retreat agenda to do the job.

Creating an effective board retreat agenda is not easy.

You may have been disappointed or embarrassed by retreats. Undoubtedly, you attended board retreats that missed their mark. These retreats achieved little. Either the board failed to make decisions, or they were unhealthy, short-sighted, or shallow when the board made them.

This article guides nonprofit CEOs, executive directors, and board chairs on how to clarify board retreat goals, so you achieve them at your event. We’ll do this by focusing on the heart of board retreats: their objectives, measures, and value. These three items are the framework of dynamic board retreats and prepare you to develop a board retreat you will lead internally or work with an advisor to partner with you to design your event.

1. Board Retreat Agenda – Setting Objectives

What Are Your Board Retreat Goals?

Answer this question by writing down all your board retreat goals.

Why list all goals? To achieve more of them!

Optimal board retreats check multiple boxes. By capturing what you want upfront in mind, you begin with the end in mind. Counterintuitively, starting here allows you to find the express lane to reach your objectives.

You might set your retreat goals yourself. However, it’s genius to ask your board members what they would like to achieve.

Why is this so smart? When you include their objectives in your invitation, you increase attendance. Moreover, often, your goals will overlap with the board members’ desires. You create more buy-in for retreat activities, and it’s always a good idea to put your board’s ideas up front. (Watch 5 Ways to Turn Off Your Nonprofit Board Members.)

Now that you’ve identified your goals let’s get clear on how you’ll know you achieved them.

2. Board Retreat Agenda- Measuring What Matter

How Will You Know Your Board Retreat Succeeded?

For every goal listed, create a tangible measurement. Remember SMART goals?

Answering this question moves you from “we want to have a great board retreat” to specific, quantifiable outcomes. What are measurable results? Stuff you can measure. You can’t measure “a great board retreat.” You can measure a retreat that identified six innovative program improvement ideas and left the board with a plan of action.

Getting Specific about Retreat Objectives

What will a successful board retreat look like for you? Review your goals. Consider and revise as necessary to answer these additional refining questions.

  • Are your goals specific? For instance, you list improving board members’ relationships, which is pretty broad. Consider Helping board members have multiple one-on-one conversations with other members. 
  • Are your goals practical? That is, can you move forward on the challenge during a retreat? For example, you have had a budget shortfall for five years. Unless someone writes a check at the retreat, it’s unlikely you will close your shortfall at the retreat. Revise the goal to identify three solutions plus a concrete plan to pilot the top idea to close your deficit.
  • Star the priorities. Which goal is the retreat’s key priority? For instance, your budget shortfall is more important than the facilities review. While your facilities impact your budget, and you can probably tackle both tasks during the retreat. However, since the budget shortfall is the priority, you star it to focus your retreat activities around it.

You may be thinking, egads, this is a lot of work, but bear with me. Getting granular about what you want streamlines your retreat planning and allows you to drive directly toward your objectives.

(BTW, If your first thought answering this question, how will you know your retreat succeeded, was that you survived and that no one came to blows, please reconsider if a board retreat is the best way forward. If the board is toxic or in conflict, retreats carry a high risk, and you may want to discuss other options with me.)

3 . Board Retreat Agenda-Values, Is it Worth It?

What value will the board retreat provide?

For every goal you set, identify the value of reaching it.

Why do you need to know the value? Retreats take energy, time, and money, resources you sorely need elsewhere. If you can’t establish enough value to motivate you and drive board attendance, rethink your retreat concept and choose another option, such as a workshop or a series of workshops. 

Organizing a board retreat is more complex than holding a regular board meeting. Finding the value of doing the retreat upfront allows you to promote it and support your investment of time and resources in the event.  

Here are some prompts that will help you calculate value:

  • What value do you see your nonprofit, your board members, and you gain from a successful board retreat?
  • How might a successful board retreat impact revenue?
  • Nonprofit branding?
  • Outcomes?
  • Work?
  • Your workload?

How to Determine Value

For each goal, identify one or more values as applicable and apply a price tag to it. For example, if your budget shortfall is $25,000, and you identify ways to close it at the event, the value of your retreat is at least $25,000 the first year. Say the board micromanages, and the retreat changes this behavior; the value could be 10 percent or more of the budget. Well-functioning boards reduce turnover. Perhaps you have a disengaged board, and the retreat leaves them energized and actively recruiting prospective donors. In this case, you decided the value of the retreat will increase your contributions income by 25 percent over three years.

When I work with clients, the value of board retreats exceeds their costs, often by ten or twenty times the investments. Their potential value is why board retreats have remained very popular.

Once you know the value, how might you share it? With . . .

  • Board members, when you invite them to enlist their support and engagement and
  •  Staff and yourself to keep retreat tasks front and center in your jam-packed schedules.
  •  Your retreat planning team so you achieve your goals.

Creating Dynamic Board Retreat Agendas Starts with Your Answers 

You can create a board retreat that meets and exceeds your objectives and launches your nonprofit to the next level.

How will you know your retreat succeeded? Effective board retreats leave everyone tired and thrilled. In the parking lot or at the end of virtual sessions, everyone concurs they worked hard and that the future never looked brighter.

Dynamic board retreats don’t happen by accident. You create them by planning your objectives, measurements, and the value you want to happen in advance.

Need more help with your board retreat? Karen is available for a mini-consult to answer help you answer these questions, help you craft an agenda or more. Click here to email or here to chat.

Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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