5 Ways to Lead Effective Nonprofit Board Retreats

April 2023

As a nonprofit leader, you've probably been told ad nauseam about the advantages of holding annual retreats for your board of directors, but perhaps you've never gotten around to making concrete preparations for such a retreat in the future. Given the stressors of the past few years, as well as the general burdens of being overworked in the nonprofit sector, it is understandable that leaders might decline to prioritize retreats if they do not immediately demonstrate clear benefits. However, nonprofit board retreats can serve as highly impactful tools for re-engaging board members, breaking out of dull routines, and setting the tone for the organization in the coming year. 


Here are five ways to improve the effectiveness of your nonprofit board retreat:


1. Clarify the Purpose of the Retreat...and Then Clarify It Again

No matter how engaged your board members may be with the organization's mission, you still need to make it clear that meetings will be useful and worth their dedicated effort, even more so with retreats that require significantly more labor. Board members are very busy people and it is essential to always bear in mind what you are asking them to contribute, especially in relation to the concrete impacts their work will have on the organization. One helpful way of framing this decision is the "meeting return-on-investment," which considers the positive impacts that the meeting (or retreat, in this case) will have on the organization and the participants themselves. Board members will be less likely to engage with retreats that largely consist of sharing information about the organization or discussing strategic topics in a circular, disorganized fashion. Make it clear in planning the retreat that members will be given ample opportunity to discuss engaging, relevant issues of governance and strategy, like the cycle of board development and board involvement in the fundraising cycle

2. Don't Get Bogged Down Discussing Operational Issues

A common misstep in convening board meetings, in general, is allowing the discussions to focus too heavily on day-to-day operations and problems that are more appropriate for staff to address. Additionally, negative feedback from stakeholders can sometimes focus on the outwardly visible activities of the organization, which are important to address but can distract boards from concentrating on the bigger picture issues of governance that frame these everyday activities. One way to avoid this tendency is to craft a retreat agenda that focuses on a handful of high-level goals associated with key strategic areas for the nonprofit. While an agenda only succeeds to the extent that it is followed during the retreat, investing time and effort into making a thoughtful, relevant agenda will make a huge difference to the level of engagement from participants.

3. Take Steps to Improve Candor and Objectivity

Despite the diverse backgrounds and perspectives of the members of your board, the tendency for boards to engage in groupthink and avoid dissenting opinions poses a substantial challenge to the kind of creative, horizontal thinking that is essential for strategic governance. When planning a board retreat, it is vital to make space for a variety of opinions to be heard, especially the more negative evaluations that risk being glossed over in a group setting. Start by grounding the retreat conversations in objective measures about your nonprofit, including finances, beneficiary satisfaction, program evaluations, etc. This way, the group will have common reference points and be less likely to provide overly rosy or negative assessments of the organization. Additionally, consider hiring an outside facilitator to guide the retreat sessions, ideally someone who shares the organization's values, but has enough distance to call it how they see it. Lastly, make it clear to the participants that they do not need to come to a consensus on every topic, which will hopefully encourage more individuals to chime in with their ideas. 

4. Make It Easy to Participate

No matter how dedicated your board members may be to the organization's mission and programs, you are still asking them to spare several hours of their day to focus on rigorous planning work. With this in mind, plan your retreat in a way that makes it as easy as possible for participants to engage and contribute without getting burned out or overwhelmed. As one example, sessions should be designed around technology breaks so members can fully engage with the session, safe in the knowledge that they will be able to check in with the outside world at a designated time. Also, aim to design conversations and activities that encourage contributions from people with a wide variety of communication styles (and participation locations, when conducting hybrid retreats). Make ample time for breakout sessions and activities like interview icebreakers so that more introverted individuals can have spaces suited to their interaction preferences.


5. Tailor It to Your Organization

While researchers and leaders in the nonprofit field have developed a number of best practices for leading impactful board retreats, ultimately the path to success requires that you tailor these gatherings to your organization's unique needs and characteristics. At the end of the day, you are the foremost expert on your organization and the interactions of the board, so take the time to shape the retreat based on the needs of your team. One way to accomplish this might be to host the retreat in a place that is meaningful and relevant for your organization; for example, an environmental nonprofit could rent space at a nature center, or a youth literacy organization could use a library in a neighborhood that it serves. For many nonprofits, this may mean hosting the retreat on site, which can have the added benefit of cutting costs. Regardless of your exact choices, embrace the opportunity to create an experience that will leave an impression on your team, whatever that ends up looking like. 

Board retreats can leave an enormous positive impact on the governance and performance of the board of directors and, with a little added investment of time and planning, your next board retreat can help start a new chapter in your organization's history. If you are interested in planning a board retreat for your nonprofit, reach out to PMA Consulting today to learn more about our retreat facilitation services. We have helped dozens of nonprofits host impactful and engaging retreats to improve their best practices and re-energize their strategic vision. Schedule a complimentary phone call today to learn more about how we can help your nonprofit. 

Additional Resources

59: 5 Keys to Leading Dynamic Virtual Meetings (Lea Williams) by Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership

140: A Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Boosting Board Engagement (Lea Williams) by Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership

5 Tips to Plan An Effective Nonprofit Board Retreat by Giving USA

How to Plan a Nonprofit Board Retreat by OnBoard

Five Tips to Cut Costs At Your Next Board Retreat by the Membership Management Report

12 Keys for Successful Board Retreats by the Nonprofit Times

Ice breakers can help team building on board retreats by Board and Administrator

About PMA Nonprofit Leadership 

As a firm, PMA Nonprofit Leadership is constantly developing content and programs to help you in three distinct ways.  The first way is to help you be a thought leader in the nonprofit sector by producing weekly content through our podcast Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership. The second way is through individual coaching, training and our unique Mastermind Nonprofit Leadership program. The third way is to help your nonprofit organization through support of its strategic planning, board & staff development, and fundraising. Through our exclusive partnership with the Institute for Philanthropic Leadership, we also  guide aspiring nonprofit leaders through the virtual New Development Professionals cohort training program, as well as the annual Leadership Gift School, now entering its 10th cohort season.  Let us know how we can help you! Join our community by signing up for our free resources here, and schedule a call if you'd like to learn more about ways we can help you on your journey to nonprofit leadership.