Board Retreat or Bored Retreat

I’m facilitating a couple of board retreats over the next few weeks, so I’ve been thinking about the differences between those that really work and those that…well, don’t work so well. In the former case, it’s typically because there is a sense that “we”—board and staff—want to work together to make our organization even more extraordinary.  In the latter there is rarely agreement as to the purpose or the desired outcomes of the retreat. There is also a sense from most of the participants of “Gawd! Do we really have to do this again?”

I shouldn’t badmouth retreats—I make a fair amount of my living planning and facilitating them.  And when they work, they can be amazing.

But sometimes, the retreat is planned because, well, we should do a retreat.  And we probably should focus on this or that.  Often the this is board roles and responsibilities and the that is fundraising.

These are two areas about which I have much passion.  Being on a board is a big commitment, and people who agree to serve should understand what it is they are undertaking.  Likewise, professional staff should understand what they can and cannot expect from a board member and—more importantly—how they can support those members so they successfully play their roles and shoulder their responsibilities.

One of those, of course, is fundraising.  But even a willing board will not get very far without support from staff.  And vice versa. Both sides need to understand what fundraising is and is not; and what board members can and cannot accomplish.

Understanding doesn’t just come with the territory. There has to be an open dialog, an exchange of ideas, a willingness to really listen to each other and hear what is being said.

Good retreats get those issues out on the table and there is an honest effort to identify who needs what and how those needs will be met.  Too often, however, the needs get buried under complaints, criticisms and grievances.  Or they get killed with kindness because no one is willing to utter the truth.

I’ve been told that we can’t do something because “they” won’t participate.  “They” don’t understand or “they” already know this stuff, “they” just won’t do what they need to do.  Sometimes “they” are the board; other times they are staff.  The problem, clearly, is that there are opposite sides not working together to push the mission—one which I have to believe all sides care about—forward.

The most successful retreats are the ones when they all realize that, actually, the correct pronoun is “we” and we are all in this together.  There is an energy then, and an excitement about how we can make the future brighter, better, more productive while being more proactive.  Come to think of it, these are, typically, the most successful organizations, too.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits and educational organizations, helping them to have great retreats and to increase their fundraising capacity.  Learn more at