Jan 22, 2011
The organization booked a night at a meeting facility about an hour away from Wooster, hired a board expert to serve as a facilitator, and gathered the board. The retreat, which cost the charity $3,000, was time and money well spent, according to Mr. Porter and Gary Dolan, the board's president. In the event's aftermath, says Mr. Dolan, the board added an internship program to help bring in new trustees, started a governance committee, and crafted a mission statement. "What happened is, an outsider came in with a lot of experience, and he literally just kicked our butts," Mr. Dolan says. "He said, 'You're not functioning as a board, and you need to get together.' People actually began to take ownership, and to recruit other board members who would lead us further."
The newly unified trustees, says Mr. Porter, have helped the charity further its mission: Since 1996, the group has nearly doubled the number of children it serves. "Now, as the executive director," he says, "my board is one of my best assets."
The Christian Children's Home of Ohio isn't the only nonprofit organization that has sought -- and achieved -- change through a board retreat. Just as for-profit companies and larger nonprofit groups have long used events like golf outings and ski trips to encourage unity and sociability among their trustees, smaller charities have also begun to look to retreats as an opportunity to recharge their board members' energies, to encourage friendships, and to evaluate their operations. "We don't even ask, 'Should we have a retreat? ' anymore. We schedule them a year out," says Sally Gammon, chief executive officer of Good Shepherd, a nonprofit physical-rehabilitation facility in Allentown, Pa. Her group holds two retreats annually, one for strategic planning and one for evaluating the board's effectiveness. "It truly helps in building relations that are trustful," she says. "People can be more comfortable saying what's on their mind, and not as guarded."
A Different Approach
A retreat is very different from a typical board meeting. Instead of moving quickly through a rigid agenda, board members spend their time at a retreat concentrating on specific problems or thinking more broadly about their work, say nonprofit leaders.
"We got a mission statement out of our retreat," says Suzanne Fust, president of the Morris Park Players, a nonprofit theater group in Minneapolis, which held its meeting last August. "Before, I think everybody had had these ideas floating around in their heads about what they thought the Morris Park Players was or could be. But when we would have meetings, they would bog down into us discussing our individual productions, and we wanted to limit that this time."
James Orlikoff, a consultant in Chicago who frequently leads retreats for nonprofit clients, says the isolated setting of a retreat is designed to spark creative thought. "Because you're 'trapped' in the same place together at a retreat, it sends the message that this is different from the way we meet, and it won't be run the same way meetings usually are run," he says. "That frees people up to think differently."
Boards also find that retreats can be a good way to teach new members about an organization's goals and customs, according to Barry Bader, a governance consultant in Washington who works with nonprofit health-care groups.
A standard retreat is typically a daylong or overnight event that separates board members from their everyday business. Comfort is crucial, says Christine Hammes, who helps plan retreats with the Management Assistance Program for Nonprofits, a nonprofit group in St. Paul that helps other nonprofit organizations with strategic planning. "It's good to have food and beverages available, and ideally an outdoor setting that's conducive to walking and reflecting on what's going on," she says.
While the best location is a bucolic lodge, tight budgets or logistical concerns may dictate that retreats take place at or near a charity's offices for shorter periods of time, says Mr. Bader. The key, he says, is putting participants at least an hour away from their homes, he says, so that they aren't tempted to run back to the office or home to take care of things.
Participants should also be protected from the demands of the charity they serve, especially if the retreat must be held on or near a group's headquarters, says Timothy Plant, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Professional Association of Treatment Homes, in St. Paul, which operates a group of foster homes throughout the Great Lakes region. He notes, "You don't want people dropping in and saying, 'As long as you're here, can't you just help us with this"
Facilitating Good Relations
Rather than asking trustees or staff members to lead a retreat, most organizations bring in outside help: a facilitator, even a volunteer one. "A board left to its own devices might tend to debate smaller items," says Ms. Hammes. "The facilitator's job is to keep it from becoming focused on details or day-to-day operations."
With a good facilitator, board members and included staff are free to express themselves, their thought processes guided by a neutral party who carries no office baggage, says Andrew Lasser, chief executive officer of St. Joseph Hospital, in Augusta, Ga., whose organization has conducted board retreats. "It's one thing for me to say to the board, this is right or this is wrong," he says. "But we see each other all the time. Having someone from the outside say, 'This is where you need accountability, this is where you're doing fine, and you need to talk about these things some more, ' makes them more likely to listen. It helps them validate what they're doing, or find out where they could do things differently."
When deciding whether to hire a facilitator, Mr. Lasser urges retreat planners to check references: "It's not a guarantee that things will run smoothly, but it makes sure you don't miss as often." Some facilitators may have written books or reports on their preferred governance practices, he adds, which could be read before hiring them. "You don't want someone who will philosophically differ from the board," he says.
One way to assess a facilitator is to ask how much preparation her or she does before a retreat and how he or she plans to follow up, says Ms. Hammes. It is also important to tell facilitators in advance about conflicts they might expect with the group and ask how they might deal with those issues, according to Mr. Bader. If the facilitators don't have a strategy for facing those conflicts, he says, they're not going to be ready for the retreat.
A retreat may not necessarily require a leader from outside the organization, says Mr. Bader, depending on the event's purpose.
"You can have a retreat without a facilitator if it's a retreat that is going to have minimal interaction, in which there is going to be primarily one-way education," he says. "One that focuses on presentation and discussion can probably be effectively led by one of the organization's own leaders, either from management or the board."
Planning is key to any retreat, says Ms. Gammon. "We've learned not to just lecture or educate," she says. "We provide a lot of material ahead of time in the packets and expect the board will come ready to participate, and to use the times at the retreat for breakout and productive sessions. We make sure there's a lot of activity integrated into the retreat."
As part of the preparation for the event, facilitators should speak with an organization's leader to determine who should be invited, says Ms. Hammes. The list may be expanded to include key volunteers and staff members, she says. Or, says Mr. Orlikoff, it could be limited to only the trustees: "If you're doing a board self-evaluation, and you want the board to change its behaviors, then you only invite the board because too many other people can put a chill on the behavior."
Before a retreat, a facilitator may also survey board members on their performance and goals, or those of the organization. After asking for ideas, Ms. Hammes says, she tries to make sure the participants arrive at the retreat armed with information. She starts sending the information she has gathered back to participants at least one week before the event starts.
Taking a Break
Participants and facilitators say that part of the strength of a retreat comes not just from working on problems, but also from building relationships.
"It's really unbelievable to see what happens after dinner, when people retreat to the lounge," says Ms. Gammon. "They all talk together, they want to understand each other."
But Ms. Tipple warns organizers to make sure work on the charity's behalf is the primary focus, and to recognize that busy board members probably can find recreation on their own time. ""Social time is important," she allows, "and we try to make sure we give them a little time to rest up and make a nice social hour and dinner in the evening. But we're cautious about the balance."
The retreat's work activities -- and not just the designated social time -- should also be fun and stimulating, according to Debbie Hechinger, president of Boardsource, a nonprofit group in Washington that offers consulting to charity boards.
"Fun isn't necessarily the same thing as socializing," she says. "Facilitators will use games or puzzle pieces to start up the conversation. They'll use techniques like asking individuals to state the one thing they'd never put on their résumés as a way to open up discussion."
For instance, at the retreat for the Morris Park Players, Ms. Hammes had her charges conduct an exercise in which the trustees acted like audience members who were being interviewed by the press as they exited a successful performance.
"I told her in advance, any role-playing or other work you want us to do, we're the ones for it," said Ms. Fust of the Morris Park Players. "No one in that group would have responded to a real formal approach."
But even businesslike boards can benefit from breaking down the barriers to creativity through unorthodox techniques, says Ms. Hammes. "Even if you've got a board full of people who are very focused and task-oriented," she says. "You've got to get them up and moving around at some point." (For more on sparking creativity during brainstorming sessions, see this previous Philanthropy Careers article.)
From Talk to Action
As board members meet, the facilitator will attempt to keep the group moving toward its objectives -- be it a mission statement, board restructuring, or a new strategic plan. But as the retreat reaches its end, it is particularly important to come up with an action plan. This helps establish continuity in the days following the event.
"Lots of groups feel great after the retreat, but six months later, haven't done anything," Mr. Orlikoff says. "Those retreats are failures. If the retreat was educational and social, it will usually carry over on its own, but if the retreat is action oriented, or the purpose is to result in change when you get back home, then it's important that, at the end, you have a written action plan, and you prioritize it. You don't want a laundry list, but a doable list of action items, prioritized, with assignments of responsibility, and a deadline."
He points to an example from his own experience: At a retreat he led last winter, the participants decided to create a new process for recruiting trustees, which he estimates will take about six months to put in place. In the case of a long-term goal like that, he says, the retreat participants must take charge of monitoring the plan's progress.
A good retreat leader, Mr. Bader says, will document the results of a retreat, in the form of a report prepared shortly after the event ends, to help the board follow up on its intentions. Many boards arrange a check-in with their facilitator for a few months after the retreat to keep them attuned to their progress, says Mr. Orlikoff. But the lessons only stick if the board itself does the work.
"I always follow up," says Ms. Hammes. "But I don't care so much about what's on a piece of paper. I want them to leave with a change in perception in their heads."
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Category: Board Retreats and Strategic Planning