Any of us who have ever served on a nonprofit board for more than a year have most likely been part of the ritual known as the “annual board retreat.” Most of them are okay, a few are awful, but there are those occasional retreats that are so successful that they are critical milestones to making any mission spring forward!

We all plan, hope and dream for the latter scenario to be the case for any retreat we are involved in. Only a few items make the difference between a game-changing, culture-changing retreat and a just so so retreat.

I do not claim to be a governance expert, but after participating in a large number of these, here are four thoughts on what has worked and what has not from a dedicated board member and former board chairman with numerous nonprofits:

1. It is okay for socialization of board members to be a key objective

There are so many benefits to board members getting to know each other better. We can all think of at least a dozen just off the top of our head.

Why then is there so much fear of making socialization a key priority? I wish I knew. Perhaps it is the desire to finalize a strategic plan or some other gigantic takeaway.

Please be comfortable with the immense benefits of board members knowing and understanding each other better. Knowing the other person’s point of view usually aids in resolving tough issues no matter what the subject.

Another key side benefit of such socialization is the fundraising results years down the road that such relationships and bonding bring!

2. Big takeaways require prior planning

We alluded to such annual retreat outcomes as a new or revised Strategic Plan or perhaps a new or revised Mission Statement or new or revised Operating Principles.

All of these are outstanding and would allow the participants to depart with a strong sense of pride. However, 20 people staring at a whiteboard trying to wordsmith documents or mission statements in a “real time” basis is only engaging for two or three of that 20.

Whether you are brainstorming ideas for such plans or finalizing the final documents, it is best to have the board stay at the 50,000 feet strategic level. (Most of your board members are “big picture” thinkers. That is probably why you invited them to the board anyway, right?)

This is where proper committees come into play.

3. Proper use of committees

We all know a small and dedicated committee can almost always achieve more than a large board. This is especially true in a set-up or wrap-up role. Let’s see how this plays out for those big takeaway projects.

Any big takeaway project should be handled in one of two ways:

  1. Have the entire board brainstorm the major points that such a project should contain then appoint a committee (hopefully sprinkled with detail oriented people) to craft the draft and/or final version of any documents.
  2. Months prior to the retreat appoint a committee (once again, hopefully sprinkled with detail oriented and experienced people for such a project) to research and draft a first version document for the full board to discuss

Such prior or post planning will make the retreat so much more productive!

4. Involve an experienced consultant or facilitator

Every single outstanding board retreat I have been involved with as utilized such an individual. They know all of the methods and ideas that work. Perhaps more importantly, they also know the ones, which will not work in such a group setting.

Sometimes, a concern for the cost of an outside person is raised. This should be a minor consideration.


Consider the cost and the accumulated net effect of having a poorly executed retreat that results in negative feelings among present and most likely future board members.

The reduction or total loss of future gifts provided by the board members will usually dwarf the investment in the outside person. Conversely, the rise in such giving by the board if they emerge from the retreat more highly engaged and excited about your cause will also dwarf the cost of the outside person.

Without a doubt the difference a good consultant or facilitator can make is vital. Always check references for any being considered, as well as, interview for areas of expertise required. You will be glad you did!

Keeping the four steps above in mind should allow any of you planning a board retreat to avoid the so so results. I am betting they can be the foundation of an outstanding retreat that brings your board together as a cohesive team and results in success by any measurement in the future.

Have you ever attended or facilitated a board retreat? What worked for you? Let us know in the comments below!

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Jay Love

Jay Love

Co-Founder & Chief Relationship Officer at Bloomerang
A 30+ veteran of the nonprofit software industry, Jay Love co-founded Bloomerang in 2012. Prior to Bloomerang, he was the CEO and Co-Founder of eTapestry for 11 years, which at the time was the leading SaaS technology company serving the charity sector. Jay and his team grew the company to more than 10,000 nonprofit clients, charting a decade of record growth. Prior to starting eTapestry, Jay served 14 years as President and CEO of Master Software Corporation. MSC provided a widely used family of database products for the non-profit sector called Fund-Master. He currently serves on the board of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and is the past AFP Ethics Committee Chairman. Jay is also the author of Stay Together: How to Encourage a Lifetime of Donor Loyalty.