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The Ultimate Guide To Nonprofit Strategic Planning Board Retreats

Strategic Planning board retreats
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Okay, I know what you’re thinking!

“Our board is sick of retreats, they just want to get the plan done.”

“We cannot afford the time or money to do a retreat.”

“We don’t need a facilitator; we can do a retreat ourselves.”

“Do we really want to “retreat” from our planning duties?”

A few years ago, it became quite popular to refer to the annual board retreat as a “board advance” to put a more positive spin on the process. After all, you want your board to advance, don’t you, not to retreat from its duties?

Yes, you do want the process to help advance your mission, your vision, your programs. But, I still like the term—board retreat. Here’s why:

The retreat is an occasion to get your board and staff away from your usual meeting space, to take the time to really think about where the organization is going and how it will get there, and to get to know each other better. So, retreat, rather than being a negative word, can be almost like a spiritual retreat—a time to take stock, to be inspired, and to move towards a more positive future.

So is a board retreat a necessary part of the strategic planning process? I say yes! Here’s how to get started:

How Long Should the Retreat Last?

As much time as you need! Okay, that might be too broad an answer. I find that most groups need at least two sessions to get everything done. Sometimes groups opt for a two-day retreat, maybe a Friday evening and Saturday morning. Others do an intensive all-day retreat, perhaps all day on Saturday if most of the board members cannot get away during the week.

Ideally, the first session is held to solidify mission, vision, and values, and to determine goals. After giving the planning cabinet an opportunity to review what was accomplished at the first session, a second session is held a few weeks later. Sometimes even a third session is necessary.

One organization that completed a successful planning process held a first session at which the following things were accomplished:

  • Mission, vision, and values were reviewed and adjustments were suggested
  • SWOT analysis was completed
  • A review of the previous plan was done
  • Preliminary goals and objectives were established
  • Workgroups based on the three major goals were appointed and assigned work to be completed before the next retreat.

The second retreat was held a few weeks later. At this session, the following tasks were completed:

  • Approval of revised mission, vision, and values
  • Strategies developed to implement objectives
  • Preliminary timelines, budgets, and areas of responsibility were assigned

After the second retreat, the facilitator and staff prepared the first draft of the plan, which was then reviewed and adjusted by each work group, resulting in a final plan.

Where and When Should the Retreat be Held?

A retreat should be exactly what the name implies—a getaway from your normal routine. A place to step back and look at your organization with fresh eyes. Timing will depend on the schedules of board and staff members and possibly other stakeholder groups you might want to invite to at least part of your retreat. You may, for example, want to invite community members to come in and help you conduct the SWOT analysis. Fresh eyes and fresh ideas from people not intimately connected to your organization help shed light on areas you might not think are important, but which the community feels are vital aspects of your programs.

One organization that served adults with developmental disabilities, for example, invited parents of the people they served to come in and talk about what they saw as the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of the organization. The input of these parents was invaluable in helping the organization craft its plan.

Do not attempt to do planning at a regular board meeting. There are too many other items of business that need to get done, and too many distractions such as board members arriving late, leaving early, staff members being sidetracked by routine office duties, and staff being interrupted by other staff members.

If yours is a national or international organization, scheduling might be a bit more challenging. I’ve been involved with several national and international groups that held a special planning session before one of their regular board meetings since getting people together for another special session would be challenging due to costs and travel time.

Location, Location, Location

Where to hold your retreat? Not in your office, please!

I’ve done retreats in interesting locations such as:

  • a museum
  • a country club
  • a bird sanctuary
  • a board member’s office suite
  • an environmental center
  • an arboretum
  • a hotel
  • poolside at a board member’s home

You might even plan an outing along with the retreat, and invite spouses of staff and board members to attend the social part of the retreat. One group, for example, held its retreat at a museum and asked the museum director to take the participants and their spouses on a private tour of the museum after the session. Another group arranged a tour of local historic sites for spouses while the board and staff were tied up in the retreat, and then everyone had dinner together.

Who Should Attend?

Your planning cabinet will ultimately decide who should attend the retreat, but at the very least it should include the entire board and executive staff.

You might also have all staff involved in portions of the retreat as well as other stakeholders. You will not want these groups to be part of the entire process, as larger groups tend to get unwieldy, and sometimes the “dirty laundry” needs to get aired at these sessions.

For example, one group had a half-day morning retreat for staff members, followed by a joint lunch, and then an afternoon session for its board members. Workgroups of board and staff were assigned to work together on certain goals after the first session, and a second session was held with the board and staff together.

Some groups have invited various stakeholder groups to attend, such as parents, community leaders, and other nonprofits with whom the agency partners. These people will likely not want to take part in the nitty-gritty planning process but can be helpful in determining the organization’s strengths and weaknesses.

Who Should Lead the Retreat?

You need a facilitator. Yes, it will likely cost you some money. Yes, the facilitator might not know your organization inside out. But the objectivity of an outside facilitator is essential. You also need someone who can keep the group on track. Perhaps you have an experienced facilitator within your organization and you’re tempted to use that person’s services. Please don’t. It is hard to get an insider to come into the process without any preconceived notions about what should happen and about whose opinion carries the most weight. An experienced facilitator can assure that all voices get heard, that the process moves according to schedule, and that any disagreement is handled correctly.

Using a Consultant

There are many consultants who do strategic planning. You can start by asking at your local AFP chapter, your association of nonprofits, or by asking other nonprofits in your community who they’ve used and whether they were happy with the person’s abilities.

When talking to consultants, ask how many planning sessions they’ve done, whether they will produce the actual planning document, or just facilitate the retreat. You can probably save some money if you construct the actual plan and just use the facilitator for the retreat.

Be sure to ask if the consultant has experience with nonprofits. I’ve seen many plans developed for nonprofits, but done by consultants from the corporate planning world, and they often miss key issues such as governance and fundraising because these are not part of the corporate world.

Can You Find a Volunteer?

Often you can. Again, be sure this person has experience with the nonprofit sector. You might be able to get someone from another nonprofit to volunteer in exchange for someone from your organization helping them with their plan.

Or perhaps a board member who works for a large corporation will be able to enlist the services of the company’s planning department. Just be sure to determine if they’ve ever done a nonprofit plan before engaging them.

Have you held a strategic planning board retreat? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Gary MacDonald

    Linda, you have hit the nail on the head in so many areas that are non-negotiable in the a strategic planning retreat. I led had 34 years of leadership experience in that field as an Executive Director and now help facilitate ED's and Boards in that process as a consultant. If i may suggest an alternative to a SWOT process, I have found great success in the SOAR process. The SOAR process (Stavros, Cooperrider, & Kelley, 2003; Stavros & Hinrichs, 2011) provides an alternative to the SWOT process. Based on an appreciative inquiry (AI) approach to strategic planning, the SOAR framework provides an effective guide for conversations related to identifying and leveraging the key strengths and opportunities. There are two critical advantages with the SOAR. 1. The energy is much higher because the starting point begins with a question. "What are the root causes of our success?" 2. That question is answered through a narrative approach at a systems and personal level. Everyone is engaged right away. Just some thoughts. Keep up the good work!
  • John warren

    The most valuable outcome of any retreat is relationship building: board member to board member; staff to board member: executive leadership to board leadership. The opportunity to "get to know each other" is invaluable.
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