The Planning Retreat

strategic planning Feb 23, 2021

Okay, I know what you’re thinking! “Our board is sick of retreats, they just want to get the plan done.” “We cannot afford the time or money to do a retreat.” “We don’t need a facilitator, we can do a retreat ourselves.” “Do we really want to “retreat” from our planning duties?”

A few years ago, it became quite popular to refer to the annual board retreat as a “board advance” to put a more positive spin on the process. After all, we want our board to advance don’t we, not to retreat from its duties?

Yes, we do want the process to help advance our mission, our vision, our programs. But, I still like the term, board retreat. Here’s why.

The retreat is an occasion to get your board and staff away from your usual meeting space, to take the time to really think about where the organization is going and how it will get there, and to get to know each other better. So, retreat, rather than being a negative word, can be almost like a spiritual retreat—a time to take stock, to be inspired, and to move towards a more positive future.

So, is the retreat a necessary part of the planning process? I say, yes!

How Long Should the Retreat Last?

As long as you need! Okay, that might be too broad an answer. I find that most groups need at least two sessions to get everything done. Some groups opt for a two-day retreat, maybe a Friday evening and Saturday morning. Others do an intensive all-day retreat, perhaps all day on Saturday if most of the board members cannot get away during the week.

Ideally, the first session is held to solidify mission, vision, and values, and to determine goals. After giving the planning cabinet/committee an opportunity to review what was accomplished at the first session, a second session is held a few weeks later. Sometimes even a third session is necessary.

Where and When Should the Retreat be Held?

A retreat should be exactly what the name implies—a getaway from your normal routine. A place to step back and look at your organization with fresh eyes. Timing will depend on the schedules of board and staff members and possibly other stakeholder groups you might want to invite to at least part of your retreat. You may, for example, want to invite community members to come in and help you conduct the SWOT analysis. Fresh eyes and fresh ideas from people not intimately connected to your organization help shed light on areas you might not think are important, but which the community feels are vital aspects of your programs.

One organization that served adults with developmental disabilities, for example, invited parents of the people they served to come in and talk about what they saw as the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of the organization. The input of these parents was invaluable in helping the organization craft its plan.

Important: Do not attempt to do planning at a regular board meeting. There are too many other items of business that need to get done, and too many distractions such as board members arriving late, leaving early, staff members being sidetracked by routine office duties, and staff being interrupted by other staff members.

If yours is a national or international organization, scheduling might be a bit more challenging. I’ve been involved with several national and international groups that held a special planning session before one of their regular board meetings, since getting people together for another special session would be challenging due to costs and travel time.

Location, Location, Location

Where to hold your retreat? As I’ve said, not in your office, please!!!

I’ve done retreat in interesting locations such as:

  • a museum
  • a country club
  • a bird sanctuary
  • a board member’s office suite
  • an environmental center
  • an arboretum
  • a hotel
  • poolside at a board member’s home

You might even plan an outing along with the retreat, and invite spouses of staff and board members to attend the social part of the retreat. One group, for example, held its retreat at a museum, and asked the museum director to take the participants and their spouses on a private tour of the museum after the session. Another group arranged a tour of local historic sites for spouses while the board and staff was tied up in the retreat, and then everyone had dinner together.

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