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Nonprofits facing a disengaged board...a board that's operating as less than the sum of its parts...or those facing a transition point (new leadership, refreshed strategic plan, major environmental shifts) often come up with the same solution - holding a board retreat.

The vision: 15 people gathered together, delving deep into weighty topics, and emerging united and ready to run.

But a few days later...? As excitement wanes and board members' commitments to the nonprofit compete with family obligations, work challenges and the like, our best laid plans have trouble taking root.

How can we get the most out of the effort we put into a retreat - with results that last?

More Than One Day

A good board retreat is a pivot point. While the actual event is critical for capturing board member attention and energy, the preparation for and follow-up from a retreat is just as important to ensure ongoing board engagement - and outcomes.

And while one of the most significant elements of a retreat is the peer-to-peer interaction in the same room at the same time, good retreat prep builds the base for that interaction through one-on-one work with individual board members well in advance of the day.

In contrast, retreat follow-up is often conducted in small groups assigned to discrete tasks, such as the executive, governance, finance, fundraising, and program committees or working groups.

This mix of individual, full-group and small group work makes the full retreat process more powerful - it builds board coherence in many forms, creating multiple bonds that hold together as patience frays and real-world crises intervene..

Before: Input

Developing the retreat agenda should be a team effort. Sure, the idea for the retreat may come from one individual, but determining what gets covered - and preparing for that dialogue ahead-of-time - should be an inclusive process.

Retreat prep is a great excuse, in essence, for getting board members to focus on the organization's deepest issues. It's a mechanism for getting board and staff to agree on priorities - even if it's only priorities for what the conversation should be about. Identifying the right questions to ask - and laying the groundwork so that board members, supported by staff, can lead intelligent conversations at the retreat about those strategic questions - takes a lot of preparation.

The reward? Board members who buy-in to the retreat goals are well-versed in the issues, and go into the retreat ready to lead their fellow board members in an examination of the topics at hand (and take responsibility for achieving desired outcomes).
During: Interaction

A good retreat involves a lot of back-and-forth. Not just between the executive director and board members, but direct board-to-board interaction. Board members must hear from each other, and work together to resolve the issues at hand (closely supported, of course, by staff). That way, they'll be much more committed to implementing solutions on the other side.

Don't forget about the bonding effects of humor. Find a way for the wittier members of your board to insert a little levity into the day. If you're not certain that'll happen on its own, create an exercise that pushes people to share in a light-hearted way.

Careful about dense presentations: make sure the agenda involves a mixture of listening, learning, and leading. Let board members shine, so the directors appreciate each other's effort and ideas, and individual members aspire to join those "in the know" at the next board meeting. Make sure that different board members lead different parts of the program.
After: Support

To maintain the momentum, plan in advance for a follow up process that culminates in progress reports at subsequent board meetings. That gives a deadline that's far enough away to allow for real action but close enough to keep the pressure on, and keeps board members speaking and deliberating with each other rather than sitting back and listening.

Support the new leaders that emerge at the retreat - people who've agreed to take on tasks, or committee leadership - with a consistent dose of staff energy. Schedule calls for the committees and working groups, help draft meeting agendas, plan outreach, think through strategy together - don't leave them on their own to figure it out.

The definition of a good nonprofit retreat?

A meaningful day that launched a solid plan - with all hands on deck ready and willing to bring it home.
Tales of Retreat Success:
Resiliency Advocacy Project

The Resilience Advocacy Project (RAP) combines innovative youth leadership programs with targeted policy advocacy in order to build resilient youth who are able to become catalysts for positive change in their lives and communities. At RAP's December board retreat, facilitated by Cause Effective, RAP executive director Brooke Richie-Babbage saw increased board engagement from sharing draft agendas and prepping committee chairs ahead of time: "Involving my board really helped them to feel that the meeting was addressing questions and issues that they believed were important. It felt like more of a shared opportunity for growth, rather than a day-long presentation from me," she reflected.

Following the retreat, Brooke is meeting individually with each board member to craft a personalized engagement plan for the year that builds on the board's new awareness of the organization's needs: "Every single board member has shared with me that he or she came away from the retreat with a much clearer understanding of our finances, and of how our finances are intimately connected to our programs and strategic vision for the year. A light bulb went off for a few board members - they came away from the meeting with a deeper understanding of the fact that they are a crucial part of our ability to thrive as an organization."

One board member took on a new role as a committee leader: kickstarting committee meetings, spearheading a goal-setting process, and taking the lead on reaching out to staff to coordinate implementation. "The retreat helped her see more clearly how her actions directly impact our organizational health," according to Brooke.

And she's not alone, notes Brooke: "The entire board has really shown a deeper commitment (some, for the first time) to helping to introduce new people to our work and raise funds for the organization."  
Cause Effective Can Help

We've facilitated hundreds of retreats that leave boards energized and ready to "do."  If your board seems ready for engagement and you think a retreat could be helpful to get started, drop us a line.


We'll be glad to think through the elements to enable you to build a retreat that succeeds for the long haul.

Judy Levine 
Executive Director  
Cause Effective Around Town
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Upcoming Panel: Engaging the Next Gen Board Member

Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of NY

Thursday, Feb. 25th

 New directors in their 40s and younger can refresh a long-standing board. Many Millennials and Gen X and Y'ers would like to contribute their expertise to nonprofits but starting families and advancing in their careers competes for time in volunteering. Join us for a panel discussion with several Next Generation board members who can offer insights into the successful recruitment and integration of their peers as part of an organization's strategy to energize and diversify its board.
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Rashi Desai:
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When Donors are Consumers

There's a world of difference between purchasing a service (no matter how satisfied the customer), and making a charitable contribution to help the world experience that activity. A recent NY Times article on the Y's new advertising campaign - "Beyond 'Gym and Swim'" - discusses the public's misconception about the role of the Y...which results in thousands of dollars in lost fundraising revenue.

But what are the lessons for the rest of us? 
From the Cause Effective Blog:
Who Cares?

Inside versus outside.

What we see, experience, feel, working day-in, day-out in a nonprofit - is not what "they" experience.

I was reminded of that last week in several ways: in a capital campaign feasibility study, in a board case training, and giving comments for an executive director's 360
-degree review.

In each case, I was trolling for feedback on that ole Ed Koch question: "How're we doing?" And in each case, the reply was more positive than those on the inside - those who fixate in minute detail on the running of the place - might have thought.
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For over 30 years, Cause Effective has strengthened the nonprofit sector by increasing the capacity of more than 5,000 nonprofits to build sustainable communities of supporters.  We provide carefully tailored counsel to help nonprofits diversify funding, raise more money from individuals, activate boards of directors, and get the greatest value from anniversaries and special events so they can achieve long-term, community-based change.

To learn more, please visit www.causeeffective.org.