RetreatSummer has officially started and with it comes vacations, cookouts and baseball games – and your nonprofit’s summer retreat. Retreats have become commonplace in the sector, but many CEOs and board chairs find orchestrating a productive retreat for their organization challenging. When we facilitate a retreat for our clients at Social Impact Architects, we often have the organization’s leadership step back from the meeting itself and focus on the role the meeting will play in the organization’s lifecycle. To help drive the point home, I encourage leaders to think about retreats as “playing chess, not checkers.” Retreats are not supposed to be a collection of agenda topics, but rather they should be built around a theme that connects meeting goals to larger organizational goals around strategy and culture. To help you make the most of your retreat, we collected your most pressing questions and quizzed our staff for their best answers to help you conduct a game-winning retreat for your organization.

What should our retreat goals be? How should they be developed?
Retreats should be strategic in nature and give participants an opportunity to discuss important matters in-depth without day-to-day time restrictions and pressures. Retreats are also the perfect time to build relationships. As we have underscored in past blogs, culture and teamwork make or break an organization. We highly recommend forming an ad-hoc retreat committee to plan and execute the retreat. This committee will develop a theme based on input from staff (via survey or suggestion box) and the strategic needs of the organization. The committee’s role is not only to plan and execute the retreat, but also to debrief afterward and follow up on decided-upon strategies or tactics.

How long should a retreat be? What time of day is best? Where should we hold it?
Most organizations focus on answering these logistical questions first and then make the strategy fit the timing and location. We strongly encourage you to do the reverse – develop the theme for the retreat first and then work on how these elements will support the theme. Generally speaking, though, we suggest retreats last no more than 4-5 hours. Based on the adult learning model, this length of time is about right to maximize adult productivity, especially for board members who are away from the office. The best time of day is simply whenever you can get most people to attend and be engaged. We encourage clients to conduct a Doodle/Meeting Wizard poll to find the best time OR schedule the retreat to coincide with an existing staff or board meeting. Location really does matter, so we encourage clients to find a location with enough space for breakout groups and enough interest for networking or an element of fun.

What agenda topics work?
While the agenda is best driven by the theme, we recommend including these elements in your next retreat:

  • Welcome/Ground Rules – Start the agenda by presenting a “State of the Union” and expectations, including setting ground rules.
  • Networking/Ice Breaker Time – This doesn’t have to be extravagant, but it should allow participants to share and work together.
  • Celebration – Find time in the agenda to take stock of where you are, celebrate individual and collective goals achieved, and re-commit to the cause.
  • Professional Development – Bring everyone together to learn as a group (our favorite – Storytelling) or learn more about themselves and each other (our favorite – take StrengthsFinder as individuals, combine scores as an organization and discuss results).
  • Strategy Work – Uncover key topics that need more time and attention through pre-work, such as surveys and pre-reading, and use time within breakout groups to problem-solve. Share results for refinement and prioritization.

In general, we encourage quality over quantity and encourage the retreat committee to vary activities to maximize engagement and meet the needs of various learning styles.

Retreats are just like any game you might play. You can plan all you want, but you also have to be flexible enough to adjust as needed. Despite best efforts, retreats can sometimes go astray. In these instances, you just have to “make it work.” An alternative, though, is to hire a coach/facilitator. As an objective third-party, this person can help plan, execute and ensure time is managed well.

If you have other questions, please send them along to us. We’d also love to add best practices learned from your retreats to our page so that others may benefit from your wisdom. Tune in next week to hear the latest update on new and promising IRS regulations on PRIs/MRIs (Program/Mission-Related Investments).

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