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Productive Board Retreats Are Key for Nonprofit Success

Nonprofits have to be concerned about money. Securing funds to operate is hard enough, nevermind that nonprofits must meticulously account for how they spend their money. For nonprofit boards, sometimes that means making sacrifices. That might be why you don’t hear about nonprofit boards spending money on events such as retreats, but not investing in off-campus events can be a mistake.

One example of how retreats can benefit nonprofits comes from the Christian Children’s Home of Ohio. The organization, beginning in the 60s providing aid to a handful of children, had over 500 kids in its charge by the 1990s. Unfortunately, chugging along managing everyday operations hadn’t allowed the board to plan for such growth.

That’s why Gary Porter, the Executive Director, decided it was time to plan a retreat where outside help was called in to consult with the organization's board. The retreat cost $3K but resulted in a number of positive changes, making room for even more growth. 

The same is true for the non-profit, Morris Park Players, which developed their mission statement out of their planned time away. 

Texas Health Action, the parent of the Kind Clinic brand, has made amazing cultural and strategic decisions at their two retreats facilitated by the Lynch Law Firm that simply would not have happened without carving out focused off-site time with a facilitator. 

Unlike a board meeting, a retreat focuses on solving a couple of high-level specific issues versus simply conforming to an agenda on numerous topics. Since board members are in for the long haul during a retreat, it's important that nonprofits focus on comfort when planning them. 

"It's good to have brain-food and beverages available, and ideally an outdoor setting that's conducive to walking and reflecting on what's going on," Christine Hammes, a nonprofit management retreat consultant told The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Helen Petty, of the Lynch Law Firm, also recommends ensuring some unstructured time in the evenings to encourage natural bonding between board members. 

The first requirement of any board retreat should be that every single board member must attend. Otherwise, the expenditure is difficult to justify and the work could be undermined or unsupported by the missing voices.

While not every nonprofit can (or should) afford the highest accommodations of a luxury retreat, it’s important to keep one key thing in mind: Plan the retreat for a location that’s far enough away that participants can’t just run home during the session. Further, make sure they are shielded from the everyday demands of the job.

Another important tip for an effective retreat is to secure a good facilitator. Experts suggest looking outside of the organization for a facilitator, even if that means getting someone who is a volunteer spokesperson. "A board left to its own devices might tend to debate smaller items," says Hammes. Helen refers to this as “examining one’s own navel and pronouncing it wonderful.” Skilled facilitators ensure the leadership stays on track and focused on the big picture outcomes.

Planning is key to the success of the retreat. You want it to be designed so participants can launch right into quality content upon arriving. One way to do this is by having the facilitator provide information to board members and participants in advance. A good facilitator will do a lot of work to plan for the topics that will be covered and to accommodate the personalities and relationships that exist. 

The facilitator and the head of the organization should discuss who needs to be in attendance in the event people outside of board members should be invited. Facilitators may also want to survey board members, getting feedback in advance of the event. Feedback surveys can include questions on performance and goals for individuals or the organization as a whole.

A retreat is definitely a smart business move, but it shouldn’t be all about business. Leaving time for rapport, relationship building, and levity allows the board to grow as a team, which is one important outcome of these types of events. Nonprofit retreat planners can maximize the event’s success by planning time for breaks, group meals, and other activities that aren’t expressly work-related.

For more information on how your nonprofit can be better prepared for organizational growth, contact Lynch Law today.