Retreat as a step in the right direction


Webster’s dictionary defines “retreat” as “going backward: withdrawal in the face of opposition or from a dangerous or unpleasant situation,” evoking images of surrender and defeat. However, a properly structured and facilitated retreat can be a great way to move forward and should be viewed as a “pause” from routine board business that allows participants to learn, strategize and re-energize.

Regardless of the purpose, a common thread of retreats is to accomplish goals not achievable during the confines of a regular board meeting. Retreats are also natural and effective relationship, trust and team builders for your board members.

Incorporating a retreat into the board’s annual meeting is the most common use and functions as a year-end wrap. Assuming there is no pressing challenge to be addressed, the annual retreat gives board members and executive staff extended time to assess year-end performance and set specific goals for the year ahead.

The following are additional reasons to organize a board retreat:

Strategic planning

This retreat is all about the future. Practical themes include an impending merger, strategic alliance or capital campaign readiness. Other concrete themes include board, committee and staff restructuring; program revision or expansion; or internal and external organizational challenges that may impact mission or programs.

Boards also address more conceptual topics like mission, vision and values, or program revision or expansion, which are often the first step in a strategic planning process. Armed with consensus on mission, vision and values, the framework is set for exploration and decision-making on strategic goals.


Boards use retreats to learn about legal, demographic or technological trends and challenges in their service sector.

An extremely timely topic is how to keep up with, manage and effectively utilize the ever-growing technological advances and social media tools. Boards can hire experts to educate participants on the newest tools, required resources and organizational benefits to adopting new technologies.

Board performance, development

Besides self-assessment, retreats provide ongoing leadership or specific skill training on topics such as fundraising responsibilities, techniques or donor stewardship activities.

New board recruits often will require orientation and mentoring and sometimes “generational” gaps must be bridged between old and new members.

Performance retreats can clarify roles and responsibilities, create a recruiting process or evaluate committee structures and effectiveness.

Revitalize the board

In early stages of an organization or during a capital campaign, the passion and energy level of a board is high.

As campaigns end, or organizations mature and professional staff take over day-to-day operations, boards can become less engaged. Retreats can inspire boards through group sharing of motivations for joining and staying committed to the board; team building activities; hearing testimonials of long-time donors or client success stories; or stimulating competition by sharing and rewarding board member successes (e.g. acquiring new donors and challenging board members to do the same).

If your board is ripe for a retreat, remember that an effective one will require time, energy and planning. Some essential ingredients include:

Thoughtful planning

The point person for a retreat is often an executive staff member, who assists a planning committee comprised of board leaders, staff, stakeholders and once selected, the facilitator.

Establish the agenda first, as it will guide such other decisions as invitees, location and timing of the retreat.

Other committee tasks include promoting attendance, approving and administering pre-meeting activities or surveys, and coordinating post-retreat follow-up. Select a location away from your usual place of business to promote uninterrupted focus and more creative thinking.

Realistic goal setting

A retreat is more likely to be productive when a consensus is reached by participants and stakeholders on the desired outcomes and then the goals and expectations are communicated to participants prior to the retreat.

Avoid the temptation to use the retreat to cover a multitude of organizational challenges. It is more efficient in the long run to allot the appropriate amount of time to cover fewer topics in depth, leading to more actionable results.

Also, be mindful not to be side-tracked by routine business decisions.

Inside or outside facilitator

Who will facilitate a retreat often depends on goals. An inside facilitator will likely be the board chairperson or another board leader and his familiarity with organizational culture, values and personalities can be a time saver for the process.

However, while that person is facilitating, it is difficult to participate in the retreat, leading the group to miss out on his valuable input. He may also find it hard to remain neutral, objective and not be influenced by institutional and relationship patterns given his need to maintain working relationships after the retreat.

Assuming he has the expertise, an inside facilitator may best be used for retreats focused on education in a presentation and discussion format.

An outside facilitator can provide the critical objectivity and expertise required for a successful meeting. His “fresh eyes” can spark creative thinking and he has expertise to speak to best industry practices for similar organizations.

It is important to educate an outside facilitator on your board’s culture, internal politics, relationships and decision-making and conflict resolution process.

Follow-up, accountability

Great ideas lead to results when put into practice and periodically reviewed for progress and accountability. A summary of discussions, outcomes, time-frames, responsible parties and progress measurement should be compiled by the facilitator and distributed within a few days after the retreat.

Retreats can move your organization in the right direction. They are intentional time-outs that can refocus board energies on the decisions and issues that will sustain your mission into the future. Retreats add value by creating opportunities for board members to socialize, strengthen their relationships, and renew and recommit themselves to your organization and the tasks at hand.