Joan’s Top 10 Ingredients For A Home Run Nonprofit Board Or Staff Retreat

June 19, 2017

From National Nonprofit Leader, Joan Garry:

It’s all in the planning. Here’s what you need:

  1. The retreat must be owned by its participants.A top down approach is a recipe for failure. If YOU want to have a retreat because YOU think that the group should be discussing what YOU want, re-think and re-frame. When a group has a shared investment in the goals and outcomes, you all win.
  2. Hire a facilitator who doesn’t simply direct traffic and keep the “queue.”I always joke with my clients that if I have one weakness as a facilitator, it’s keeping the queue. I’m too busy listening, capturing ideas, synthesizing, and helping to clarify the important points people are trying to make. You are hiring someone who is outside of your process; be sure that this person is smart, strategic and is a first rate listener. That is how you take fullest advantage of the objective point of view. Oh, one more thing. Hire a facilitator who is not afraid of being honest with the head honcho. This will be key in prepping her/him and in debriefing as well.
  3. Reach out to every single retreat participant for input.Ask each participant to answer a single question like, “This retreat will be a success for me if _________________,” and send the responses to your facilitator. This gets you important information and buy-in.
  4. Review participant feedback with E.D. or Board Chair.What do you all see? What are the trends? It is through the lens of this feedback that retreat goals should be set.
  5. A nonprofit retreat agenda is not simply a collection of agenda items.It must have an overriding purpose or theme. The best retreats take participants on a journey. Agenda item B builds on item A and so on.
  6. Identify a space that comes as close to ‘pampering’ as possible.If ‘pampering’ is unattainable, shoot for comfortable. A donor’s house maybe?  Something other than a conference room and definitely out of the office, if you can swing it.
  7. Never ever put the word “icebreaker” on the agenda.You’ll regret it. People hate them and cringe when they see the word. Now that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them. Of course you should. Just be sneaky about them, build them in organically, or just call them something else.
  8. Shoot for agenda quality over quantity.Are you bringing overworked, stressed-out staff members to a retreat with so many agenda items that it makes staff members feel overworked and stressed out? Fail. A breathless pace to a retreat is a waste of time and money. Divide your day into large blocks. Focus on the most important big things.
  9. Every retreat agenda should bring the work or the clients into the room.At one retreat, I had participants role play a diverse set of clients. I gave each one a client narrative. The staff member shared her/his story in the first person as that client and the rest of the group asked questions about her experience with the organization. It was very moving. And it helped turn “work” into “mission.”
  10. Debrief ASAP.Your facilitator should provide you a summary of evaluations within one business week following the retreat along with flip chart transcriptions and any other analyses the facilitator was charged with. Last, but perhaps most importantly, the agenda for this debrief is not simply a self- congratulatory job well done. It must include a plan for implementation that includes quarterly extended meetings that enable the attendees to review action items and assess results.

Joan Garry Consulting is available at:


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