February 2, 2022

How to Design a Worthwhile Nonprofit Board Retreat

You want to create a board retreat to engage your members.

How can you avoid a ho-hum retreat? One that leaves your board continuing old behaviors, where nothing changes. How can your next retreat meet your goals, engage your members, and leave your nonprofit stronger?

We’ve frequently asked about the hows and why of conducting board retreats. Here are answers to the top questions. Use them to make your next board retreat a knockout.

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 as long as a weekend.

Why Have a Board Retreat? 

You want to solve pressing challenges, such as revenue shortfalls, create a policy for a new issue, or explore strategies. For instance, you identify one or two nagging problems. You plan a retreat to grapple with those topics.

How Long Should a Retreat Take?

When in doubt, book shorter events.

Clients frequently approach me about facilitating full-day or weekend retreats. As we look at their objectives, we often create urgency, achieve more goals, and place fewer burdens on everyone’s time with shorter events. Boards that meet too long move from enthused to cranky and make weak decisions.

How Often Should We Hold a Nonprofit Board Retreat?

Many organizations plan annual retreats. A better practice is holding them when you have critical issues to tackle that require several hours of undistracted time and attention.

Retreats are a lot of work to design and execute well. You can save staff time by having fewer of them. Moreover, they require members to forgo other activities, often family time. Requiring attendance at an annual retreat will usually reduce your ability to recruit and retain members. Avoid holding a retreat to check it off a to-do list. 

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

All successful retreats solve specific organizational problems. Of course, your retreat goals depend on your nonprofit’s needs.

While you can accomplish several objectives, focus on one or two compelling issues that impact you. Stuff that drives you and the staff crazy are ideal subjects.

Avoid too many objectives—most nonprofits try to achieve too much and accomplish a mishmash of minor concerns.

Retreat goals are a case where more is less. From leading hundreds of sessions, the best retreats have one or two and no more than three goals.

What Are Some Board Retreat Goal Examples or Ideas?

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

The board:

  • Affirmed that more donations must be added to the organization’s budget and crafted a board and staff plan to seek them.
  • Went from unengaged to engaged. Embraced their role and began four board committees.
  • Created a strategy to move an off-mission program to a new home. For more about strategy, check out, 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 Do You Make a Super Successful Board Retreat?

Besides achieving the retreat’s goals, successful board retreats weave board education into their activities. These retreats leave members wiser, with new friends and increased commitment to your work. (For activities to avoid, watch Board Engagement: 3 Things to Stop Doing Now.)

Let’s face it, being a fantastic board member requires lots of know-how. To excel, board members need to know how nonprofits operate, how your nonprofit works, its role, and more. Because of time constraints, it’s tough to cover these areas during regular meetings. Retreats, in contrast, provide first-rate opportunities to grow your board’s skills and smarts.

To get your creative juices going, consider if you want to weave the following topics into your retreat:

  • Board behavior best practices
  • Your nonprofit’s revenue history, plus current and future funding
  • Individual program challenges
  • How boards act as ambassadors
  • Staff vs. boards roles
  • How and why people donate to your work
  • Individual member’s philanthropic journeys

These topics—and those I just triggered in your head—offer worthy content to add to your agenda.

What’s a Good Board Retreat Template or Sample Agenda?

Here is a template for your next stand-out nonprofit retreat.

  • Welcome and retreat 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 agenda 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 creating retreats.

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. This guide includes a section on what to accomplish during a Nonprofit Strategy Session.

Do We Need a Retreat Facilitator?

In most cases, yes. Here’s why. 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.

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 during a retreat.

Finally, an expert helps you plan a retreat to get you to your goals and create a lasting impact. Worthwhile retreats leave board members enthused and committed. You want that energy to last and translate into actions that support your work.

Do Virtual Board Retreats Work?

Yes, your board retreat can be as successful or even more successful virtually as in-person. With Zoom tools and apps such as Miro and Mural, virtual retreats rival and sometimes exceed the productiveness of in-person events. They allow you to engage your members and reach your goals without traveling or while they’re on vacation.

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 for a free exploratory talk.

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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