Strategic Planning Part 6: The Board Retreat : Successful Nonprofits

Strategic Planning Part 6: The Board Retreat

by goldenburggroup

Strategic Planning Part 6: The Board Retreat

by goldenburggroup

by goldenburggroup

This sixth article in our nonprofit strategic planning blog series is about the board retreat. Since only a portion of the board serves on the strategic planning work group, the board retreat is an incredibly important opportunity to ensure board members share feedback and feel ownership for the emerging strategic plan.


In this blog post, we will discuss:
•    Your board retreat agenda
•    Structuring a retreat to ensure members have buy in
•    The role of the work group members in the retreat
•    The role of the strategic planning consultant in the retreat
•    Agenda items that can derail your entire retreat
Building Board Ownership
The primary challenge of the board retreat is to help the board feel like they’ve been part of the strategic planning journey. After all, over 200 hours of work have gone into preparing the information for this retreat, but you have a comparatively short amount of time to communicate this information to the board.

In case you are surprised by this 150 to 200 hours number, let’s do the math.  Let’s assume you have 7 work group members, who participated in 6 bi-weekly work group meetings leading up to the retreat, and each did about two hours of work every week.  The equation looks something like this:
7 people x 12 weeks x 2 hours each week = 168 hours.

And don’t forget the 50 or 60 hours that your consultant has invested in facilitating and assisting the work group. Now you can see there are over 200 hours of interviewing, analyzing, organizing and deliberating in order to reach the retreat.

Retreat Agenda
As a strategic planning consultant, I design a retreat schedule that helps board members feel like they have been part of the strategic planning journey from the very first work group meeting. Toward this end, I typically recommend a very simple retreat agenda, that looks something like this:

Opening Ritual (9:30 AM – 9:45 AM)
Morning Session (9:45 AM – 12:30):

  • Workgroup reports on its work
  • Mission, Vision, Core Values

Lunch and Activity (12:30 – 1:15)
Afternoon Session (1:15 – 3:30):

  • Welcome back – next steps (15 minutes)
  • Review and refine the big bold goal
  • Mind mapping

Finance / fundraising

  • Programs
  • Organizational development
  • Breakout Groups Report Back (3:30 – 3:45

Closing Ritual (3:45 PM – 3:55 PM)

On this agenda, we start the retreat with an opening ritual or “check in”. This is typically a generative question such as, “One year from now, how will we know this retreat has been a success?” In offering this question, it is very important to limit each board member’s response to 1 or 2 minutes or the check in can quickly eat 45 minutes of your retreat. To help enforce the time limit, I bring a cheap stop watch, and the person who just answered the question is responsible for timing the response of the board member sitting beside them.

The Morning Session
At the retreat, the morning session is essentially a report out by the strategic planning work group. I’ve helped them produce a power point presentation that is heavy on graphics and light on text. This presentation distills all of the information gathered during the environmental scan: stake holder interviews, financial analysis, program analysis, fundraising analysis, and board evaluation. The power point presentation must be tight and without a lot of text because each slide is simply a visual support for a work group member who has become a subject matter expert over the past twelve weeks.
When I lead a strategic planning process the work group is usually presenting about 90% – 95% of this “report out” presentation and I am maybe only doing 5% or 10% of it. This is a time for work group members to shine by sharing their planning journey with their board member peers.
Typically, each work group member presents on a specific topic from the environmental scan. So one work group member will explain how the stakeholder surveys were conducted and share the high-level trends from those interviews. Another may review the multi-year financial analysis, while a third work group member might walk the board through the program analysis. Every work group member has a speaking role in the presentation, and the entire work group takes board questions after each slide. The opportunity to ask questions is a critical component to the board feeling genuine ownership of the data being presented.

Mission, Vision, Core Values
You may recall that the work group also reviewed and proposed revisions to the organization’s mission, vision, and core values. Many board members begin the board retreat feeling a strong commitment to the current mission, especially specific phrases or sentences that detail specific constituencies or services.

For this reason, I developed an exercise to help board members let go of the current mission and embrace the stronger, more impactful proposed mission. This exercise has the added benefit of allowing board members to get up and walk around after about 90 minutes of sitting and listening.
We divide the board into two groups and give each group a word scramble. One word scramble includes all the words of the current mission, while the other scramble includes the words of the work group’s proposed mission (which, remember is 10 words or less).  Each group has to unscramble the words to assemble the current or proposed mission. The groups are also informed that this is a timed, friendly competition.

The group unscrambling the current mission is often looking at a jumble of 40 or 50 words like this:

The group unscrambling the proposed mission has a much easier task, as you can see with this example:

The group unscrambling the proposed mission typically completes their task in about 45 to 90 seconds. This group now has the proposed mission laid out on a table so that it can be easily read.
Meanwhile the group unscrambling the current mission is still organizing words after about two minutes. Now keep in mind the members of this group have heard the mission, read it on organizational documents, and may have even helped draft it. Often, the group that finished unscrambling the proposed mission will try to help their counterparts actually finish putting together and unscrambling the current mission.
Ten minutes later, however, the current mission is often still not fully unscrambled with people being uncertain where specific words or phrases fit into the structure of the mission. This exercise helps every board member understand that the long mission does not really work for them as an organization.

As we discuss the exercise as a group, every board member becomes willing to abandon the current mission and is open to reviewing and finalizing the proposed mission. During the review, it is quite common for the board to make the mission even tighter by removing a word or replacing two words with a single, more impacting one. Now the board has full ownership of the proposed mission.
The work group presents the proposed vision as a word scramble, but this time it is not a competition. Since every board member understands the importance of a succinct vision statement, we ask them to unscramble the proposed vision as one group. Once unscrambled, the board discusses, reviews, and refines the proposed vision statement.

Finally, the work group presents the core values and gets feedback from the full board. The value statements almost always change through this process, and this is a healthy sign that the board is owning the work group’s results.

Lunch Break
At lunch, I will offer a short activity for all board members. Sometimes this activity is simply speaking with another board member about their love story with the organization; other times we ask board members to write a phrase of their choice about the organization on a white board and take a photo of them beside it.  The lunch is designed to be a complete break from strategic planning and typically lasts 45 minutes.

Some organizations will ask if they can hold a board meeting during lunch, and I regret the few times I agreed to this. In fact, holding a board meeting at any point during the day is a tremendous mistake that impacts the tone of the entire retreat.

There are two reasons why boards should not have a board meeting as part of their strategic planning retreat. First, it switches every board member’s mindset from “strategic” to “tactical”; once their frame of mind has switched to the everyday tactical work of the board, board members often have a difficult time transitioning back to strategic. Additionally, board meetings always take more time than allotted on the retreat agenda. So now the important strategic planning work becomes rushed.

Afternoon Session: Big Bold Goals and Mind Maps
After lunch, the board focuses on reviewing (and revising) the big bold goal.  Keeping in mind that a small organization should have no more than one big bold goal, and a large organization should have no more than two, a key role in facilitation is helping the board revise the goals without adding additional goals (or sneaking them in at the end of a big bold goal).

Now once the big bold goal has been refined and tweaked by the board, it begins to mind map the goal. If there’s only one big bold goal, the board as a whole works on a mind map of how to achieve it. If there are two big bold goals, we divide the board into two and have each group work on one goal.
The mind map is simply a graphic representation of everything you need to achieve your big bold goal. As an example, if the big bold goal is “end child hunger in greater Houston by 2025”, the board will map out all of the resources and inputs necessary to make this a reality.

What do you need to end child hunger in your community? Obviously, you need access to food but where do you get it from? The mind map might show partnerships with grocery stores, food banks, local farmers, local gardeners, etc. If you have food, how do you get it to those in need? To answer this question, the mind map might include vans (and drivers), transit passes, and local pick-up points in food deserts. What staffing do you need? The mind map will delineate not just program staff but management and fundraising as well.

This is an exciting process that fully engages board members. After all, they joined the board hoping to work on high-level issues and it also helps them envision what the organization can actually achieve. They typically leave this process understanding why an organization really should grow even bigger, stronger and more impactful.

Preparing the mind map will often take 90 minutes or more, and if there are two mind mapping groups the retreat should allow for reporting back to the whole board.  Once done, we roll up the mind map for use by the work group in writing the final plan.

In the final 30 minutes of the retreat, we outline the next steps for the board and have a short closing ritual. This closing ritual is often another generative question that helps the board understand its role in overseeing strategic plan implementation.

Social time
Now that the strategic planning retreat has ended after a long day of hard work, I always suggest the boards have an opportunity for social time at a happy hour or a dinner. And I also encourage them to invite spouses. This social time with spouses is critical because it allows board members to get to know each other, and it also helps board spouses feel more connected to the organization.
We’re starting to wind down this nonprofit strategic planning series, and we only have about three more articles left. Our next installment in this series will outline how to use the information from the environmental scan and board retreat to draft your actual strategic plan.

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