The Why of a Retreat

As my husband reluctantly got in his car to head to the annual departmental retreat, I asked what issues were they going to grapple with and—hopefully—at least set on a path to resolution. He stared at me with his gorgeous (to me, anyway) blue eyes as if I had lost my mind.

“We will be talking about exactly the same things we talk about at every department meeting,” he said tersely.  “With exactly the same  non-results.  And we’ll listen to boring reports that will try to frame last year as far more positive than it was.”

No wonder he was so reluctant. 

I’d love to think that his department is particularly dysfunctional, but it’s not. So many of the nonprofits I know have the same kind of retreats. What I often call the let’s not rock the boat retreat, even if rocking the boat is exactly what is needed.

A retreat should be an opportunity to break from the daily routine and encourage participants to look up, see a big picture and think in new and strategic ways.

To do that, the focus needs to be on the important—that which truly impacts what you do, and, unless it is something critical, you must push pash the stuff that always demands attention, whether it is really what needs to be considered.

While retreats don’t have to be about strategic planning, they should always be strategic.  Where do we need to be heading—generally,in this specific area, in this new way?

If there is a problem, what is it, really? Now let’s focus on how we can solve it.

Having a retreat just because we should is as bad as not having a retreat because no one wants to commit the time.  

Before you schedule a retreat consider what you want to happen at that retreat—and remembering that there should be follow on work will be laid out. Retreats are wonderful for building a stronger team, mapping out a new path, stepping back and getting a new perspective.  They can renew, refresh, re-energize your boarding/or your staff.

Whatever your reasons for retreating from the every day, it will be more effective and impactful if you clearly identify your purpose and create a roadmap for getting where you want to go.

Janet Levine works to move nonprofits from mired to inspired--often by facilitating board and staff retreats.  Learn more at