How to Run a Board Retreat (or any long & important group meeting!)

I just finished a 8 hour board retreat for Gumball Capital, the nonprofit I cofounded at Stanford [1]. Our goal was to discuss information that board members had researched prior to the meeting, perform a SWOT analysis and get everyone on the same page as to where we stood as an organization, brainstorm ways to power continued growth and end with action items assigned to specific people.

Incredibly, we were able accomplish ALL of our ambitious agenda.

We got a lot done at the meeting and now have a lot of momentum going forward – plus we had some fun too. Having gone through a few looong/not-so-awesome board retreats for various organizations, I wanted to share some of what I thought caused this retreat to go so well. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on these in the comments.
gumball board retreat

Note: Our retreat was masterfully facilitated by Tara Schubert and Duane Berger who coauthored The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making and works at Community at Work. Definitely check them out if you’re doing something in the Bay Area.

PRE-RETREAT

  • Have clear goals set together ahead of time
    We made sure that before we started planning the retreat, the board and executive team were in agreement about WHAT we were going to do at the retreat and WHY. Related point to this is:
  • Know the difference between a outcome goal and a meeting goal. An outcome goal is what you want people to get out of a certain part of the meeting. For example, we wanted to get a better sense of what was going on in the microfinance industry and youth engagement with social causes. Our meeting goal was to 1) have people read a report 2) Have one board member highlight report findings and 3) Discuss for 25 minutes the findings
  • Build a great agenda; plan for both time & energy management
    You’ve got to spend some quality time in planning – at least one planning manhour for every seven meeting manhours [2]. Also, two things you learn is – 1) everything takes longer than you think so build in a lot of slack time and 2) people’s energy levels can be up (at the beginning, after a break) and down (right after lunch) so consider how tired people will be at various stages of the day and plan accordingly.
  • Make sure any pre-work is done beforehand
    In our case, each board member was assigned to present the group with specific findings. We did a good job of doing comprehensive research on topic (the state of microfinance & poverty alleviation, ways through which other student-run nonprofits have scaled, etc), synthesized it, and prepared it for the group. And everyone actually read the reports before the meeting.
  • A really good location & space
    These meetings are  typically all day so make sure you find an open space with couches (and preferably natural light). Often the location is removed from where the group typically meets – to better foster innovative thinking. Also you’ll probably want wall space for white boarding, charts or powerpoint (hopefully not!)
  • Complex meetings should be facilitated
    Every meeting needs to have some kind of facilitator to guide the discussion and keep people on track and on time – often this role is fulfilled by the person who called the meeting,or the team manager. In a board retreat, you’ll want to find yourself a talented external facilitator. We were lucky to get Duane.

DURING RETREAT

  • Capture & display everything
    In addition to a facilitator, in a retreat such as this – you want to find a way to capture people’s ideas in a visible manner so they don’t go away. Often this is done a member of the team (switching off so no one is stuck with it) on either a whiteboard or a paper chart. We had another person dedicated to this role and she used paper charts, sticking them on various places around the room. I highly recommend employing both if you can.
  • Lots of snacks, drinks and breaks
    Willpower is a muscle [3] so when you have a bunch of people working through a difficult issue in a retreat, they can get depleted. Fill ‘em up with cookies, chips, soda and other snacks. Plus breaks for bathroom, email and mental breathers.
  • Mix it up – presentation, discussion, activities
    No one wants to be doing the same thing forever. We switched it up between presenting data and discussing it in the morning, to do a lot more exercises in the after (this helped combat the lunch sluggishness too!)
  • Really listen to each other
    It really sucks when you work really hard to organize something and then people are clearly tuned out or on their laptop or cell phone. It’s really important that people stay engaged and really listen to one another.
  • Don’t be afraid to improvise
    At one point, we were discussing how the board and staff should interact and Duane created a “Board Involvement” spectrum and we spent 10 mins discussing the various notches on the spectrum (governing, advising, overseeing, collaborating, etc). Not part of the planned discussion but super valuable nonetheless
  • Identify next steps and who is responsible
    Even the greatest retreat in the world can be made ineffective if there is no follow up. Make sure you figure out what the next steps are that come out of the retreat and who is responsible for taking those actions.

POST-RETREAT

  • Thank everyone involved in organizing meeting
    We made sure to thank Duane for helping facilitate and gave everyone a round of applause for contributing their part to making the event successful.
  • Go out afterwards and have fun!
    Post-retreat can be a great time to go out for drinks. We headed to Old Pro, sucked down some beers & margaritas and watched some football. We got to joke around with each other, swap more personal stories and just enjoy each other’s company with the pressure off.

Footnotes

[1] Gumball Capital is a student-led, nationally active nonprofit whose mission is to engage students with entrepreneurship in pursuit of ending poverty. I’m part of a 5 person board that includes two other founders and two nonprofit professionals. [2] We had three people work together for three hours to plan a seven hour meeting for nine people. (9:63 = 1:7 ratio). [3] Studies have shown the willpower acts like a muscle – you can drain it doing various things, but you can also build it up with repeated use. Also glucose (sugar) in the brain might actually be part of the willpower mechanism. (Go cookies!) See here for more.
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