PMA Consulting, LLC

Effective Board Retreat Strategies

In our previous blog post, “7 Steps for Effective Board Development”, we stress the importance of conducting an effective annual board retreat. In keeping with this theme, we propose two critical questions: 1) what is the purpose of a board retreat? and 2) what steps are required to facilitate a truly effective board retreat?

Why a retreat?

  • You need to create an environment every 12-18 months in which your board can discuss strategic issues that require extended conversations.
  • Regular board meetings are too restrictive a format to inject this type of strategic thinking.
  • Having a retreat allows the board to immerse itself in the association’s issues, if only for a day or two. This increases your chances of tapping your board as the powerful asset it can be.

What to expect?

  • A comfortable location where people can work without distraction.
  • Renewed understanding by the board and staff of the organization’s mission and values.
  • Increased “ownership” in the business of your association by both board and staff, generated through their participation in retreat discussions and activities.
  • Mutual understanding by the staff and the board of each other’s roles and responsibilities
  • Topics could include the development of a new strategic plan, restructuring the board or staff organization, an alliance or merger with another organization(s), or a change to the organization’s mission statement.

How to position for success?

  • Communicate in advance the goals of the retreat to accomplish desired outcomes.
  • Include senior staff in some – if not all – of the retreat: You don’t want the staff to outnumber your board, but you want the balance of perspectives and responsibilities at the table nonetheless.
  • Use a facilitator, orienting them to your association’s issues. This will allow the staff and board leadership to gain a fresh perspective and actually participate in the discussion as opposed to being consumed with the logistics of the meeting.
  • Break up the work sessions: Though the board is there to think and work, don’t wear people out; if you take breaks and allow them to get to know each other better, you’ll get more out of them in the long run.
  • Document the various discussions: The facilitator can record key points on a flip chart while a scribe takes down all the details; develop and distribute to all participants a report of the proceedings.
  • Assure complete participation. The two things to avoid are a few participants dominating the conversation and the (often related) issue of others who don’t participate at all. Work with your facilitator to make sure that everyone is politely but firmly aware of the “rules” to participate and encourage others to do so too.

Potential land mines?

  • Writing documents, proposals, or statements collectively: It is far better to elicit from the group the key points that you want to cover and then designate someone else to draft a statement for editing.
  • Allowing negative attitudes and comments to prevail: You’re meant to brainstorm, consider new ideas, and think big; do not allow a creative atmosphere to become toxic.
  • Allowing people to come and go during the sessions: Commitment from board members to participate in the retreat in its entirety is a must; no phones, no beepers.

Next steps?

  • Make sure the facilitator reviews the accomplishments of the retreat.
  • The facilitator must review the actions or projects agreed upon at the retreat, identifying the individual or committee designated to carry out each one, and establishing appropriate deadlines.
  • Within 48 hours, draft and distribute to your membership a report of the retreat discussions and their outcomes.
  • Incorporate any action items into planning and work assignments for staff and committees.
  • Report back to the board, perhaps over the next three or four meetings, orally and in writing on the progress or your actions items and assignments.