11 Keys to a Successful Board of Directors Retreat
How to Organize and Execute a Board of Directors Retreat
You’ve recruited an amazing board of directors, and your company has an excellent mission that you just know is going to take off. But how do you get your board of directors together to actually make your mission happen? The answer is with a well-executed board of directors retreat.
Board training retreats take time and effort. You can’t just ask for ten or more people’s weekends without offering something in return. But if you put time and planning into your retreat, you’ll end up with a memorable event that encourages your directors to start getting things done.
1. Start with a Purpose
A board retreat without a purpose is truly a waste of your directors’ time. If you’re going to call everyone together, it should be to discuss important issues, make a plan of action, and take actual steps towards meeting your organization’s goals.
There are several different types of retreats that your company might decide to hold. Decide if the current retreat is about training board members, increasing fundraising capacity, or addressing your company’s overall strategy.
Legacy fundraising training retreats teach board members to make fundraising a part of their normal job. A typical fundraising retreat might introduce the work of the fundraising committee, educate your board members on various fundraising methods, and discuss some of the most common questions and problems that come up when fundraising is on the table.
Governance retreats are meant to provide board training and encourage the directors to work together as a cohesive unit. Time will often be split between highlighting company goals and completing projects that require all of the board members’ attention. Topics can range from the company mission statement to fundraising opportunities, and the length of the retreat will vary greatly based on the topics at hand.
You should clearly define the mission of your retreat before you begin the rest of the planning process. Once you know the goals that you want to accomplish, you can orient everything from the agenda to the accommodations towards making those goals a reality.
2. Hire a Facilitator
Hiring a facilitator is the most important thing you can do for your board of directors retreat. Don’t make one of your staff members manage every aspect of the retreat; ideally, you need them to participate in the discussion at hand.
There are two types of facilitators you can enlist for your retreat. An event facilitator will help manage details that catering, transportation, and accommodations. Event facilitators aren’t always needed for small groups, but they’re an excellent idea for boards that have more than twenty members.
Next, a retreat facilitator can help you organize and run the actual content of your retreat. A facilitator’s involvement can range from leading group discussions to personally following up with various board members and staff. Facilitators usually have experience in legacy fundraising training and can teach your board to do better governance work in the future.
Decide how hands-on you personally want to be at the retreat. Your voice is a valuable part of the discussion. If you end up managing too many details, you won’t be able to participate in the conferences. The best retreats are created as a result of directors, event coordinators, and retreat facilitators all working in cohesion.
3. Invest in the Accommodations
You can’t call it a retreat unless it really feels like a getaway. Your board of directors is composed of busy people. Many of them will see your retreat as a welcome break from the hectic pace of business life.
In an article for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Jeffrey Klineman notes that retreats take place away from the directors’ homes to encourage them to focus on the task at hand. This is sound advice, but if the retreat isn’t planned well, traveling will actually distract from getting work done. Close-to-home retreats are often less hassle, and they’re less expensive for everyone involved. If you do choose to travel, take steps to make the experience as smooth and relaxing as possible.
Whether the retreat occurs at home or out of town, it’s still going to take at least a day of your directors’ time. Since you’re expecting your board to drop everything for the sake of legacy fundraising training, make it worth their while with a well-planned and accommodating experience. At the minimum, your retreat should include:
- Catered food options with room to visit local restaurants.
- Comfortable hotel rooms that are close to the meeting location.
- Inspiring meeting areas that encourage both creativity and pride in your organization.
- Walking areas and lobbies to promote thought and conversation.
- Beautiful views and local attractions to make the drive worthwhile.
Even if your retreat is a single-day event, you should still hold it at a good location and invest in quality catering. You want your board members to take fundraising seriously. Cement the idea with a memorable retreat that they look forward to every year.
4. Create a Feeling of Community
A board of directors retreat isn’t a vacation, but it’s not a workday, either. Unless you’re on a tight schedule, start your retreat with a community-building activity that will help your board feel like a team.
The easiest way to do this is with a delicious and relaxing meal. Host a dinner party the night before the board training activities officially begin. You can also invite everyone to participate in a catered lunch. Your board members are likely familiar with each other, so give them a chance to catch up, talk about their individual departments, and redefine the connections that help them work together.
Board training exercises can be fun, but they should only take up a small part of your retreat. Resist the temptation to divide board members into smaller groups for lengthy activities. Instead, encourage mingling, relaxation, and discussion, just like you would hope to find at a good party.
It’s worth noting that community activities shouldn’t be immediately followed by work. No one can think after enjoying a heavy dinner and an open bar; if your retreat spans several days, make sure to give people time to switch between the modes of work and play.
5. Schedule Meetings at Strategic Times
No one wants to travel on Friday evening only to wake up for a 7 am meeting. Even if a retreat is scheduled across a weekend, you can’t always guarantee that everyone will be available from the moment they check in until the moment that it’s time to go home.
Keep everyone on track with intelligently scheduled meeting times. Identify the most important presentations, and plan to hold them at hours when you are sure that everyone will attend. Legacy fundraising training is more important than ice-breaking exercises. If you make this apparent on the agenda, your directors will know where to focus their attention and commitment.
6. Keep Things Simple
Your board of directors highly values their time and mental space. Don’t waste either of those resources with over-complicated agendas or interactive presentations.
After you’ve drafted your presentation, sit back and think about the most important takeaways. What do you want the directors to think about after the retreat? Then, put those points at the start of the presentation and scrap almost everything else. Your board is full of smart, educated individuals who are capable of drawing detailed conclusions. Don’t be afraid to jump into your thesis without too much warmup or explanation.
Reducing the size of your presentations may also increase their impact. Your audience can only remember so much of what you said. If you speak succinctly, you leave more room for discussion and internalization. Get to the point so that your board of directors can ask questions, digest the information, and break for lunch.
7. Get Inspirational
No one wants to travel for a basic slideshow and a dry speaker. An inspirational board of directors retreat will always be more memorable and effective. Your presentations should remind the board of the reasons why they invested in your organization in the first place.
Your choice of retreat facilitator will have a large impact on the tone and quality of your event. Look for a speaker who cares about your issues and knows how to communicate with your audience. It’s smart to hire someone who understands the specifics of your type of organization, but an experienced facilitator can inspire any audience to care about any topic.
If you’re running a larger retreat, try to include at least one keynote event on your agenda. Keynote speeches provide context for the work your directors will complete, and they often stand as the most memorable part of a busy weekend.
8. Leave Conversational Down Time
Just as it’s important to keep presentations simple, it’s also important to space them somewhat apart. Your attendees need time to discuss what they just heard and reconnect with their colleagues.
If you have a busy day planned, leave at least 20 minutes to half an hour between meetings. Break up large meetings into smaller segments with plenty of time for board members to run back to their hotel room or grab a quick bite to eat.
Many meeting attendees don’t actually come up with questions until well after the board of directors retreat is over. Combat this by scheduling a follow-up meeting later in the day. Start by laying out the retreat’s main goals in an initial presentation. Space out the day with smaller conferences or brainstorming activities; then, end the retreat with a wrap-up meeting where people can bring up their final concerns.
9. Invite the Directors to Work
It’s far too often that a board of directors retreat contains nothing but lengthy presentations and a few awkward activities. Your directors weren’t invited to the board for their ability to sit and listen patiently; they were hired for their extreme talent, ambition, and work ethic.
Part of board training is giving your directors permission to do what they do best. Bring at least one company project that you’d like to see progress on. Schedule time for the directors to tackle this project in-depth, like only they know how.
You should also invite your directors to participate during the actual presentations. Don’t approach each conference as if you are lecturing a schoolroom. Instead, act as though you are bringing valuable information to the people who are most capable of doing something with it. Budget plenty of time for questions, answers, and impromptu discussions when one of the topics suddenly takes off.
If you’re stumped for a way to help your board of directors engage, don’t hesitate to ask your retreat facilitator. You’d be surprised at how many activities and discussion topics most facilitators have up their sleeves.
10. Brand the Experience
Many board retreats have a hard time staying memorable. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the subject matter or of the presenters. In this busy and hectic life, it’s hard to recall what exactly was discussed at any specific meeting.
A simple way to make your board of directors retreats more memorable is to give your attendees something to hang on to. You probably don’t want to print t-shirts for your high-level executives, but you might consider handing out another small souvenir. Branded pens are an excellent go-to choice. They’re affordable, they look amazing, and your directors will keep using them for years. Other choices include branded pads of paper, etched glassware, or even books from the keynote speaker.
11. Send a Follow-Up Message
What happens the day after your board retreat? Each director packs up, heads home, and spends a day recharging with their family. By the time they get back to the office on Monday, they may have forgotten the main goals of the retreat.
A non-intrusive communication after your presentation is a great way to keep your agenda fresh in the director’s minds. Send out an email thanking everyone for attending, summarizing some of the retreat’s goals or resolutions, and reminding each participant about actionable steps they can take.
Your retreat facilitator may have their own follow-up strategies. If the issue is of particular importance, a phone call might be more effective than an email. A letter is another good way to remind directors of their fundraising commitments. Create a strategy that reflects a positive tone and works well for your organization.
Running a successful board of directors retreat is not a simple task. No matter how you look at it, you’re organizing a large event with the intent of engaging and convincing a sizable group of attendees. Luckily, your board of directors is already committed to your organization; the retreat will help them focus on that commitment and take action towards achieving your mutual goals.
Start with a strong purpose, hire a great facilitator, and put careful planning into your agenda. As long as you invest in the right areas and budget time for last-minute changes, your board of directors retreat will be a resounding success.