By Aly Sterling, President & Founder at Aly Sterling Philanthropy

Your nonprofit’s board is the motor that keeps your organization’s administrative operations going. When everyone is on the same page, your board functions like a well-oiled machine, efficiently driving your nonprofit toward its goals. However, when your board experiences disharmony or confusion, it can throw a wrench in your efforts, leading to major roadblocks in your planning process.

Whether you’re looking to improve certain fundraising aspects such as major gift acquisition or simply create an overarching strategic plan for the upcoming year, a board retreat can be a worthwhile initiative. A board retreat is a workshop dedicated to aligning your nonprofit’s leaders on strategic goals and creating consensus.

You can’t throw together the plans for your board retreat in a single afternoon. These experiences require careful planning so you can make the most of having all of your board members in the same place at the same time. Here are five tips to plan a productive retreat:

  1. Clearly articulate the purpose and objectives of the retreat.
  2. Work with a nonprofit consultant.
  3. Set goals and intentions as a group.
  4. Break out into small group discussions.
  5. Incorporate a little social time.

An effective board retreat is an important part of your nonprofit’s strategic planning process. When you provide a dedicated environment for board members to share their thoughts and come to a consensus, you can carry out your strategic plans with a unified mindset.


1. Clearly articulate the purpose and objectives of the retreat.

Any good meeting or workshop starts with a clear purpose. At the beginning of the retreat planning process, determine why you’re hosting this experience. Do you need to make some key decisions or create a strategy? How will you know you’ve been successful and everyone can go home?

Your board members lead busy lives and they don’t want to be trapped in a meeting that drags on and on without resolution. When you define success, you can establish a goal for your board members to work toward throughout the retreat.

To help you establish intentions for your board retreat, review a few common reasons that nonprofits choose to host these opportunities, including to:

  • Conduct strategic planning for the upcoming year.
  • Align board members on the strategy for an upcoming capital campaign.
  • Gather all board members together for the very first time and align on responsibilities and expectations.

Think of the obstacles or opportunities your nonprofit is facing and orient your board retreat planning process around accomplishing relevant goals.


2. Work with a nonprofit consultant.

Your organization may not have an experienced facilitator or board expert on staff. Therefore, it’s recommended that you work with a nonprofit consultant to help plan your board retreat.

Nonprofit consultants offer specialized advice and guidance for facilitating activities and discussions, keeping the conversation moving forward toward a consensus.

Plus, a consultant can bring in an unbiased, third-party perspective to help assess and consolidate a wide range of opinions and ideas into a concrete action plan.

As you evaluate potential consultants, gain a thorough understanding of the philosophy and approach of each partner. Each consulting firm differs slightly in its approach to board empowerment. For instance, Aly Sterling Philanthropy’s board catalyst service focuses on optimizing five elements of board governance: purpose, education, architecture, results and leadership.

Ultimately, you want to find a consultant that meshes with your organization’s culture and leadership philosophy. This ensures your board members will feel comfortable with your consultant leading the retreat conversations.

Review Double the Donation’s list of top fundraising consultants for a thorough overview of prospective partners.


3. Set goals and intentions as a group.

You’ll set your overarching goals during the retreat planning process, but it’s also important to hear from board members themselves about what they hope to achieve during the experience.

Allow board members to write down what their goals are for the workshop. Then, share as a group and identify common themes to develop group-wide intentions. This ensures you’re facilitating an equitable approach to goal setting by allowing everyone to share their opinions right off the bat.

This is also a good opportunity to establish guidelines and expectations for the retreat. For instance, you might encourage board members to speak up and participate when they feel motivated to do so. You may also request that board members keep their phones on silent and put away to eliminate distractions and keep everyone on task.

This intention-setting process helps board members get into the right mindset before launching into the core purpose of your retreat.


4. Break out into small group discussions.

Retreats offer opportunities to foster cohesion and teamwork among board members. One of the best ways to encourage stronger interpersonal relationships among board members is through small group discussions.

You might break members into small groups and hand each group a specific challenge or problem that your nonprofit faces. For instance, perhaps your nonprofit needs to develop new donor management strategies as your organization grows. Prompt each group to brainstorm and come up with a list of creative solutions.

These discussions help board members build problem-solving and collaboration skills and craft strategies for reaching your organization’s long and short-term objectives.


5. Incorporate a little social time.

The goal for your board retreat is to stay on target and efficiently get through your agenda. Again, your board members have busy lives and don’t want to spend an extended amount of time at your retreat. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t incorporate some social time and breaks throughout the retreat. Use these ideas to help give board members a little brain break:

  • Start with an icebreaker to help everyone get to know each other.
  • Leave time for lunch (if your retreat lasts for a full day) and coffee/snack breaks.
  • Encourage participants to use the experience as a networking opportunity and gather phone numbers or email addresses from fellow board members.

Keep these social opportunities brief so you can weave them into your retreat without excessively extending the event timeline. These ideas can help board members form personal connections, which can foster board cohesion over the long term.


Bonus: How to Run a Virtual Retreat Effectively

Virtual events are the new normal for many nonprofits. If you’ve been hosting virtual board meetings and other online events, you may prefer to host a virtual board retreat as well.

With a virtual retreat, you’ll face the challenge of not having all board members together in the same place. Participants may encounter more distractions when tuning in remotely, such as environmental distractions or work considerations. It’s important to establish clear expectations and guidelines before the retreat kicks off to make the most of everyone’s time.

Follow these guidelines to plan a dynamic virtual retreat:

  • Choose an effective virtual meeting software platform such as Zoom or Google Meet.
  • Test run your virtual meeting software ahead of time.
  • Ensure all participants know when and how to connect to the retreat.
  • Incorporate a few short screen breaks for board members to get up and stretch their legs.
  • Foster engagement and participation using virtual tools such as breakout rooms and polling.
  • Encourage participants to keep their cameras on when possible so the facilitator can assess body language and other non-verbal cues.
  • Establish guidelines such as having board members keep their mics muted when they’re no speaking and encouraging them to find a quiet place to tune in from.

By making an effort to keep participants engaged remotely, you can host a virtual retreat that’s just as effective as an in-person experience.

Your board members put forth a lot of time and effort to keep your nonprofit running smoothly, from contributing monetary donations to offering their leadership and guidance. A board retreat can harness this passion and expertise to align board members on strategies and goals. By following these tips, you can keep your retreat on track so that board members leave feeling energized and ready to implement your chosen strategy.

Author Bio: Aly Sterling  

Long before Aly Sterling founded her eponymous consulting firm, she was solving the unique yet similar problems encountered by nonprofit organizations.

Her decision to start her own business in 2007 was driven by her belief in leadership as the single most important factor in organizational success, and her determination to work with multiple causes at one time to scale societal change.

Aly’s expertise includes fundraising, strategic planning, search consultation and board leadership development for the well-positioned nonprofit. She is regularly sought for comment by trade and mainstream media, including the Chronicle of Philanthropy and U.S. News & World Report. She has contributed to publications of BoardSource and The Governance Institute, as well as the Toledo Chamber of Commerce and The Giving Institute.