To Advance Your Mission, You Need to Retreat

Yesterday morning (yep, a Sunday), I facilitated a board retreat via Zoom. I’m not going to lie, I was very, and I mean VERY worried about energizing the group and making sure each and every individual was engaged and actively participating in the discussion. To help get the group focused, I had provided them with a Pre-Retreat Worksheet and asked that they send it back to me prior to the retreat. Out of a board of 15 people, 5 people sent it back. Let me tell you, going into the retreat on Sunday morning, I was CONCERNED. 

Background on this Board

This organization is religiously affiliated and in the past year, the organization had some unexpected challenges. The first was that the board chair died unexpectedly and then the Executive Director resigned and right as shelter-in-place was mandated by their state, the new Executive Director started. The new Executive Director and board leadership believed that the board needed to come together and come to a consensus on the purpose of the organization. That’s when they decided to host a retreat. 

Why Host a Retreat? 

All too often, when the idea of a retreat is brought up, someone in the group groans and poo-poos the idea. I think it is because that individual hasn’t participated in a well-planned and facilitated retreat. An organization should not host a retreat just to host a retreat. The reason why a group holds a retreat is because it is necessary to retreat from our day-to-day life to strategically and thoughtfully plan for the future.  

For many of us, our daily lives are filled with pressing matters and distractions. Even when we’re supposed to be actively participating in meetings, we’re distracted by our phone, email, and, sadly, social media. If we’re committed to helping our not-for-profit get it together (#NFPgit) to advance our mission, we need to make time to retreat. 

There are three main outcomes of retreats:

  1. Invigorate your team
  2. Articulate a clear sense of purpose 
  3. Connect with other team members

Is an External Facilitator Needed? 

Every single retreat needs a person who is responsible for guiding the group. This guide helps to keep the discussion moving forward and ensures that problems are being solved and decisions are being made. To keep costs low, many organizations dismiss the idea of engaging an external facilitator. However, there are two major benefits of having an outside facilitator:

  1. An external facilitator allows for every single individual to fully participate in the retreat. For instance, if the new Executive Director had facilitated yesterday’s retreat, he would not have been able to actively listen to his board and their thoughts and concerns about the future. 
  2. An unbiased facilitator can ask probing questions, steer conversations away from unproductive topics, and ensure all voices are heard. Since I am not a member of this organization nor am I familiar with its mission, I was able to ask questions that allowed the participants to dive deeper into the organization’s purpose and how they want to fulfill its mission. 

Can a Virtual Retreat Be Successful? 

Yesterday’s retreat wasn’t my first virtual retreat. A month earlier, I participated in a two-day planning retreat with the development staff at my NFP. That retreat provided me with lessons learned that I was able to apply to this retreat to ensure maximum effectiveness. 

The first lesson, the length of a virtual retreat is very important. Zoom fatigue is REAL and a two-day retreat where we are retreating 4 hours each day was too much. From my observations, our group hit our stride at the 2 hour mark and became unproductive at 3 hours. That is why I proposed to this organization’s leadership a 3 hour retreat. 

The second lesson, you must accelerate the strategic thinking process for maximum benefit. In order to get the group focused on the task at hand, I provided them with a Pre-Retreat Worksheet and for our self-introductions, I asked them to include how long they have been involved with the organization and why the organization is important to them. 

The third lesson, it is important to see every single participant since we are unable to fully experience nonverbal communication. Since video conferencing is limited to where the camera is located (usually the face) and many participants keep their microphone on mute until they are speaking, it is essential that participants are in gallery view. This way, you can see if participants are engaged, bothered, or even checking out. 

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but this retreat was one of the best that I have ever facilitated. There was 100 percent attendance and participation from the entire board. People were respectful, even when opinions, thoughts, and strategies differed. AND, they weren’t distracted from the day-to-day and could truly focus on the topic at hand. 

Energized or Drained?

There are retreats that at the end, I leave completely drained. The two-day planning retreat, that was a draining retreat and it took me the rest of the week to recover. Yesterday’s retreat, I left energized and excited. I was so impressed with the discussion and commitment of the board members that I wanted to get involved with the mission of this organization, even though I am not a member. I channeled that energy by going on a walk and then doing some work of my own. 

Final Thoughts

A retreat, in person or virtual, takes a lot of work…first in the planning, then during, and even afterwards, with the homework assigned. However, it really is important to retreat from your everyday life and take the time to discuss, problem-solve, and make decisions for your organization that will better position you to positively impact your community. Why wouldn’t you retreat, especially when it will help your NFP get it together (#NFPgit)? 

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