How to Design a Successful Nonprofit Board Retreat

Nonprofit Board RetreatYou want to create a board retreat to engage your members, but your last retreat was ho-hum. After it, your board returned to its standard behaviors, and nothing changed. How can your next retreat meet your goals, engage your members and leave your nonprofit stronger?

We’ve frequently asked about conducting board retreats. Good news. Here are answers to the top questions you ask. 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 gather and work as a team. Successful retreats can be as short as three hours or as long as a weekend.

Why Have a Board Retreat? 

Pressing challenges, such as revenue shortfalls, creating a policy for a new or ongoing issue, or exploring strategies is the why behind most board retreats. For instance, you identify one or two nagging problems that the board failed to resolve. You plan a retreat to grapple with those topics, and you want your work, organization, and the board to function better because of the retreat.

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 half-day events.

How Often Should We Hold a Nonprofit Board Retreat?

Many organizations plan annual retreats. A better practice is to conduct them when you have pressing or critical issues to tackle that need several hours of the board’s undistracted time and attention.

Retreats are a lot of work to design and execute well. They obligate board 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 challenges. Of course, your retreat goals depend on your nonprofit’s needs.

While you might accomplish many objectives, you’ll want to focus on one or two compelling issues that impact your operations or drive you and the staff crazy. These are the best board retreat topics.

Avoid jamming too many objectives into your event. Most nonprofits try to achieve too much and accomplish a mishmash of minor concerns. Retreat goals are a case where more is less. After leading hundreds of board sessions, I’ve discovered that 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 retreat goal examples that created dramatic improvements after the event.

The board:

  • Affirmed contributions must be added to the organization’s budget and crafted a board and staff engagement plan to seek them.
  • Went from unengaged to engaged. Embraced their role and began four board committees.
  • Created a strategy to move a special but 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 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 that disengage boards watch, Board Engagement: 3 Things to Stop Doing Now.)

Let’s face it, being a fantastic board member requires lots of know-how and information. To excel, board members need to know how nonprofits operate, how your nonprofit works, their role, and more. Because of time constraints, you’re reluctant to dive into information sharing and training during board meetings. Board retreats, in contrast, provide first-rate opportunities to grow your board’s skills and smarts.

To get your creative juices going, consider the following optional topics to weave into your retreat schedule:

  • Board behavior best practices.
  • Your nonprofit’s revenue history current and future streams
  • The challenges individual program’s face
  • The roles of boards vs. staff
  • Digging into how and why people donated funds to your work
  • Exploring individual member’s philanthropic journeys

These topics—and those just triggered in your head—offer valuable content to weave into your retreat agenda.

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

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

  • Welcome and retreat agenda
  • A warm-up exercise focused on 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 cleverly 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 part of a warm-up exercise. For more watch on creating retreats, watch 5 Practical Tips for Genius Board Retreats.

Can Strategy Development or Review Be a Retreat Goal?

Absolutely. Your strategy could easily be the focus of your 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. People don’t want to waste the nonprofit’s money and recognize that the issues at hand are critical.

Retreats are vital learning experiences for staff leaders and board members—in fact, CEOs often learn more than the board. Much of that learning is lost if the CEO is busy getting ready to execute the next activity. During a retreat, a facilitator allows the CEO or executive director to focus on participating.

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

Do Virtual Board Retreats Work?

Yes, your board retreat can be just 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 travel and, in many cases, while your members travel. 

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 Consulting guides executive directors and CEOs to generate the resources, boards, and support they need to make remarkable progress on their missions. As the award-winning thought-leader, advisor, and founding principal of Karen Eber Davis Consulting, Karen helps nonprofit leaders get answers, generate revenue, and grow their mission. Davis is known for her innovation and practicality based on her work with or visits to over 1,000 nonprofit organizations and her experience leading board and team events. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.