I recently offered to help a friend, Jen, plan her nonprofit’s retreat. We met for coffee and she explained that she had decided to start off her term as board president by holding a 3-hour strategic planning board retreat (replacing the second board meeting of the year). The executive director suggested she wait until the spring (Lesson 1), but she wanted to start her term with board-wide, consistent organizational priorities and had everyone reserve an upcoming Sunday afternoon.
Right away, she wanted to talk about what she wanted to include as content (Lesson 2) and how she should present it. But the more she explained, the more I realized she also had to focus on:
- How to get people excited about where they were headed – even if they were not convinced this was the right path forward (Lesson 3).
- The importance of engaging board members without conflicting with committee work (Lesson 4).
- How to incorporate different learning styles (Lesson 5).
What follows are the six lessons that can help you plan your next Retreat (Lesson 6).
Lesson 1: It is easy to feel like you can take on the world when you are starting a leadership role. But, don’t let the excitement of taking on a new position, trump the reality of a situation. If an executive director suggests you hold off, hold off. They will understand the dynamics from an organizational standpoint, much better than anyone else. For the record, she has told me that she regrets not listening to the ED.
Lesson 2: As it turned out, she didn’t really need help with content. Jen needed help in structuring the retreat. She needed help figuring out how to talk about the topics she had already highlighted. Planning a retreat was not in her wheelhouse, so she didn’t realize what she needed to feel confident was a plan of how to engage and excite the board. And, a few nonprofit board retreat techniques.
Lesson 3: Major decisions – capital campaigns, shifts in focus, new membership strategies will excite some board members and anger others. Your job, as a volunteer leader, is to encourage everyone to find their way past their personal reluctance and back towards helping the organization move forward.
Lesson 4: Committees do not want to feel pointless, and that is what happens when board time is used to rehash committee work. To avoid this, use board time to highlight their decisions and bring recommendations up for a vote. If board members have strong opinions about the committee decisions, encourage them to join the committee.
Lesson 5: The differences among us provide balance on a nonprofit board. So, remember that not everyone will vocalize their opinion in a large group. Some people are visual thinkers and others auditory ones. Leadership and good ideas come through many different paths. A retreat is the time to value differences by using alternate strategies to bring out the best, innovative, useful ideas from everyone. Think creatively and strategically about how you can do this.
Lesson 6: Calling this a strategic planning board retreat was a mistake. A strategic planning board retreat is used when you are trying to determine the direction of the organization for the next 3 or 5 years. Every board retreat has a different purpose, so try not to confuse people by picking the wrong name.
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