May 1, 2024

Nonprofit Board Retreats: Tips, Strategies, FAQ and Insider Insights

Have you ever left a board retreat feeling like it was just another checkbox on your organization’s to-do list? You’re not alone. Many nonprofit leaders struggle to make retreats impactful, leaving board members uninspired and everyone confused about the next steps.

Does any of this sound like you?

  • If retreats could actually be helpful, that would be a game-changer. Right now, they’re not!
  • Board retreats are supposed to be energizing, but I always leave feeling more drained than ever. What am I doing wrong?
  • Maybe board retreats just aren’t that valuable?
  • Another retreat? We just had one last year! We’ve got to find a a better way to actually get something done.

But fear not! With the right approach, your next board retreat can be a game-changer, revitalizing your board and answering tough questions that confront your organization. Let’s dive into the hows and whys of transforming your board retreats into dynamic, results-driven experiences.

What Is a Board Retreat?

An event best held at a nontypical meeting site for your board to work as a team. Successful retreats can be as short as three hours or several days.

What Is the Value of a Board Retreat? 

Have something that bugs you or slows you down? A retreat can solve pressing challenges, such as revenue shortfalls, designing a policy, or clarifying tricky strategies. For instance, in a four-hour retreat, we dove into board micromanaging (exec issue) and solving a mission creep dilemma (board and staff issue.

Before the meeting, board members were emailing, calling, and texting me—even on the weekends. After the event, that stopped. The board now knows their job. They understand it includes fiduciary responsibilities. It’s not only about showing up at meetings or micromanaging the staff.Sarah PalloneExecutive Director, Highland County Habitat for Humanity

How Long Should a Board Retreat Be?

When in doubt, book shorter events.

Clients frequently approach me about facilitating full-day or weekend retreats. By examining their objectives, we often create urgency, achieve more goals, and place fewer burdens on everyone’s time with short events. Boards that meet too long move from enthused to cranky and make regrettable decisions. Half days are perfect.

How Often Should We Hold a Nonprofit Board Retreat?

Many organizations plan annual retreats. A better practice is to hold them when critical issues require several hours of undistracted time and attention.

You already know that retreats are a lot of work. Fewer saves time, and your board members likely agree. Since they require them to forgo other activities, often family or downtime, requiring attendance at an annual retreat might reduce your ability to recruit and retain members.

Before scheduling a retreat, ask: Are there one to three big issues needing a deep dive to ensure attendance? Hint: at least one of those issues should be compelling to you–so you’re motivated to plan the retreat.

What Objectives Should We Set for a Successful Nonprofit Board Retreat?

All successful retreats solve specific organizational needs. So, retreat goals depend on your nonprofit’s big issues.

While you can accomplish a lot, focus on one to three compelling issues. What is a compelling issue? Pick at least some of the stuff that drives you, the staff, or the board crazy.

Having said that, I might confuse you now, so slow down here. In addition to compelling issues, you can improve board relationships and engagement if you are intentional about 1) including many opportunities for individual and small group interactions and 2) including follow-up accountability.

In all cases, avoid too many big objectives. Most nonprofits try to achieve too much and accomplish a mishmash of minor concerns. Have you ever been to one of those and left feeling overwhelmed?

Retreat goals are a case of more is less. From facilitating and designing hundreds of sessions, I  learned that the best retreats have one or two and sometimes three.

What Are Some Board Retreat Objective Examples or Ideas?

Here are some of my client’s goals that created dramatic improvements.

  • Find, get consensus, and create a plan to invest the MacKenzie Scott gift to impact program quality long-term
  • Boost board recruitment and invite and equip members to be the best board of its kind
  • Determine which board committees were essential, form them and establish job descriptions
  • Designed a strategy to move an off-mission program to a new home. For more about strategy, read Nonprofit Strategic Planning 101.

Besides the retreat’s official goals, retreats are also a conduit to educate your board about your mission and help them form stronger relationships with other members and your organization.

How Can You Host a Successful Board Retreat?

Hosting a successful board retreat in a process. Here’s a workflow:

  1. Get the event on calendars. Pick a date, location, timeframe, and tentative invitation list. Schedule your facilitator-retreat leader.
  2. Determine your objectives. Decide what success will look like. (See Board Retreat Agenda: 3 Questions CEOs Ask to Build Them.) Suggestion: Collect ideas from stakeholders and ask your board to pick their top five.
  3. Draft your event flow. Plan breaks every 90 minutes. Include an interactive activity every 15 minutes (e.g., Ranking an issue, small group discussion).
  4. Objective Planning. This is a bit like diving into a puzzle. You start by asking key questions: How long has this challenge plagued us? What have we tried? Then, it’s about gathering data and brainstorming solutions. Finally, you organize the phase into a series of activities, such as information sharing, small group discussions, ranking, and full board conversations that guide the board toward strategy or policy decisions.
  5. Gather supplies. Collect or plan for any snacks, handouts, data needs, whiteboard, markers, and so forth
  6. Finalize the retreat. Send event reminders. Do an event walk-through. Imagine how the space will be used, how your board will respond to the activities, and the supplies you will use. Your rehearsal will not be exactly how the event works, but you will see holes and areas to clarify.
  7. Host the retreat. 
  8. Celebrate a job well done. Make notes on what went well and ways to make the event better.

What’s a Successful Board Retreat Agenda Sample?

Here is a draft agenda for your next stand-out retreat.

  • Welcome everyone, and share the retreat’s agenda
  • A warm-up exercise focused on the mission and vision or the day’s goal
  • Key Topic 1
    • Background
    • Generate or review solutions
    • Evaluate options
    • Make decisions
    • Identify next steps
  • Board education
  • Key Topic 2 (similar to Key Topic 1)
  • Summary of retreat
    • What happened and what’s next
    • Closeout activity

To use this sample board retreat agenda, create an interactive activity for each item. Board retreat activities invite you to get your creative juices going and use the time, space, and relaxed atmosphere to engage participants.

For example, as an ice breaker, you pair board members and ask them to share their stories of why they said yes to serving as a board member as the first warm-up exercise. Watch 5 Practical Tips for Genius Board Retreats for more on organizing retreats and retreat activities.

Can Strategy Development or Review Be a Retreat Goal?

Absolutely. Your strategy can easily be the focus of a successful board retreat. For more on strategy, read Nonprofit Strategic Planning 101. It includes a section on what you can accomplish with a strategy focus. To determine if your strategic plan needs an update, download the Nonprofit Strategic Plan Diagnostic.

Board Retreat Facilitation: Do You Need a Facilitator?

Almost always: yes. Here’s why.

Imagine a labyrinth of possibilities. A skilled facilitator acts as your guide, fostering collaboration without dictating solutions. They illuminate the path, but your board owns the outcome. This is where true problem-solving happens and how you meet your objectives.

Retreats are vital learning experiences for staff leaders and board members—CEOs often learn more than the board. That learning is lost if the CEO is busy preparing to execute the next activity. A facilitator allows the CEO or executive director to participate and watch.

An expert helps you plan a retreat to achieve your goals and create a lasting impact. Worthwhile retreats leave board members enthused, committed, and accountable. You need that energy to last and translate into actions that support your work.

Investing in a facilitator drives attendance. When you bring in a facilitator, people don’t want to waste the nonprofit’s money and recognize that the issues on tap are critical.

Are you curious about what a facilitator does? Watch this four-minute video: What Do Facilitators Do? Short take: They partner with you to reduce your workload and achieve the outcomes you seek.

Karen did a beautiful job on the board retreat. She gained the trust of the board. Karen listens well, communicates well, and kept us in the loop. She is very organized.–Martine Meredith CollierExecutive Director, Arts Council of Hillsborough County

Do Virtual Board Retreats Work?

Yes, your board retreat can be as successful or even more successful virtually than in person. With Zoom tools and apps such as Miro and Mural, virtual retreats rival and soften exceed the productiveness of in-person events. They allow you to engage your members and reach your goals without traveling or even if they are out of the country.

How Do I Contact Karen About Leading Our Next Board Retreat?

Karen is known for her innovation, practicality, and vast experience leading retreats and other group sessions. Sign up for a no-obligation chat here or email Karen.

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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