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.
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):
Afternoon Session (1:15 – 3:30):
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.
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.
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.
About the Author:
Read Dolph Ward Goldenburg's Bio
My husband and I were watching the Georgia Bulldogs take on Alabama in the NCAA College Football Championships, when my phone dinged.
I quickly read the text message from my good friend Jessica, who works as a social worker for a $5 million nonprofit in a mid-size city. She was seeking advice about renegotiating her salary, and I am always happy to offer advice!
Like many professionals in both the nonprofit and for profit sectors, she only negotiates salary every few years. For this reason, she doesn’t have much experience negotiating salary, is rusty from the last negotiation, and isn’t always comfortable advocating for herself.
About two weeks later, she negotiated a new salary that satisfied her financially and emotionally, and our text and email exchanges might be useful advice for readers in negotiating their own salaries.
Obviously, I have changed my friend’s name, as well as her city and organization.
Jessica: Should I giver her a number? What if she asks?
About the Author:
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1. Begin every meeting with a generative question. Generative questions typically have no “right” or “wrong” answer but instead open the door to further inquiry and stimulate creative thinking. Here are a few examples of good generative questions:
It’s also important to have two ground rules to ensure the generative question doesn’t take up a third of your meeting. First, ask each board member to take no more than 30 seconds to answer the question (and time them using a screen clock). Second, be clear that participants are answering a generative question to stimulate thought but aren’t discussing the answers. [Total time – 8 minutes]
2. Build community. Every meeting is an opportunity for members to build community among themselves. Facilitate community building by always having food and celebrating (or commemorating) board member’s milestones. Sing happy birthday, express genuine condolences, sing the happy anniversary song from The Flintstones. While I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, there’s a reason that churches ask everyone stand up and sing - - - the act of singing together builds community even when we’re off-key. While you likely want to serve food before the meeting, celebrating milestones and singing is a great intermission at the midpoint of your agenda. [Total time spent – 5 minutes]
3. Share the work of your organization through a client presentation. Staff have a front row seat and backstage pass to the life-changing work of the organization, and you can give board members this same opportunity by asking a successful former client to share their story with the board. If the client is okay with a public photo, it’s also a great social media opportunity for the organization (though always get permission first). [Total time spent – 8 minutes]
4. Use a consent agenda. Your board undoubtedly has routine activities at meetings, such as approving minutes, reviewing reports, approving bank resolutions, etc. A consent agenda enables the board to bundle these routine items into one agenda item that is approved as a group instead of individually. [Total time saved – approximately 15 minutes].
5. Eliminate the Executive Director’s Report. Too many boards substitute an executive director’s operational report for the heart of the meeting. Some CEOs spend an entire day (or more) drafting a multi-page executive director report that they essentially read to the board. [Time saved – approximately 30 minutes]. Instead use item #6 below.
6. Distribute a Dashboard. A dashboard is a simple one-page tool that gives the entire board a quick snapshot of the organization’s programmatic, financial, and operational health. Give board members the opportunity to ask any questions about the dashboard. [Total time saved – approximately 30 minutes]
7. Expect board members to prepare for the meeting. It’s obvious if a large portion of board members haven’t read the meeting materials. You can tell by the questions they ask (or sometimes by their complete silence while flipping through pages). When this occurs, a member of your Governance Committee needs to say “I did my homework, and I feel betrayed when people show up unprepared”. They shouldn’t call out individuals in the meeting, but the Governance Committee needs to manage the expectation that everyone prepares for the meeting.
8. Assign a deep dive on one topic. Each meeting should focus on a specific area of governance by allotting 30 – 45 minutes for discussion and action by the board. If an organization has six meetings a year, you might consider the following areas of focus (this example assumes that the fiscal year ends December 31):
Of course, each meeting will include other business, but dedicating 30% to 50% of the meeting to one topic enables the board to do a strategic “deep dive”.
9. Set a 90-minute limit. The reason plays and symphonies almost always have an intermission is because most of us have an attention span of 55 – 90 minutes. If your board holds its meetings after work, the average attention span may actually be a bit shorter since people are tired (and hungry if you aren’t serving food). This is one more good reason to (a) serve food and (b) create an intermission by celebrating board member milestones. But, please, for all that is good and holy in this world, do not allow meetings to last longer than 90-minutes. Give your board members the opportunity to get home early enough to kiss their spouses and children goodnight.
About the Author:
Read Dolph Ward Goldenburg's Bio
Weekly Poll: If you could name your organization’s largest pothole that your clients/patrons keep hitting, it would be:
Since this is the 5th installment of our strategic planning series, we aren’t going to walk through the first four blog posts. But if you want to learn about organizing for strategic planning, conducting your environmental scan, or drafting your mission, vision, and core values, the first four posts are worth reading.
At this point in the planning process, the work group has spent two to three months to research and fully understand the organization’s history, constituencies, strengths, challenges, and opportunities.
So now it’s time to focus on strategic goal setting. Specifically, the work group needs to identify one or two strategic goals - you might call them big bold goals, big hairy audacious goals, or cathedral goals.
These are very long-range goals that might take 15 or even 30 years to accomplish. It’s important that these be ambitious and inspirational goals that give you and others goosebumps.
Let me give you a great example: in 1985, Rotary International set a long-range goal of eliminating polio from the face of the earth.
When Rotary set this goal, there were thousands of active cases worldwide and polio was endemic in 125 countries. Public health professionals thought these do-gooder Rotarians were naive and could not achieve the goal.
But Rotary kept this big bold goal in mind through it’s leadership changes, multiple strategic plans, and the ups and downs that any organization experiences. And over the ensuing three and a half decades, the effort gained steam: the World Health Organization and philanthropists like Bill Gates signed on among many others.
Today, polio is only active in two countries on this earth - - - and in those two countries there have been less than 5 new cases this year.
The big bold goal doesn’t just drive your programs and management, it also drives your fundraising. Four years ago a leader within Rotary told me something powerful. He said, “Your gift of $1,000 will guarantee that 1,000 children will never get polio”. I thought back to my time in India and the many people that polio turned into beggars. At that moment I thought “I live a comfortable lie in America and have an extra $1,000 to give; how stingy would I have to be to not make this contribution and guarantee that 1,000 children will not get polio and the planet will be one step closer to erasing this scourge”.
Eliminating polio from the face of the earth is a good example of a Big Bold Goal, but let me give you a few more:
What are the signposts of a big bold goal?
Sometimes at this stage of the planning process, work group members will propose incremental goals, such as:
These are all good goals, and they might even contribute toward a big bold goal - - - but they aren’t a big bold goal. So when work group members suggest less ambitious goals, write them down and promise to revisit them when the big bold goal is selected.
Finally - a small organization shouldn’t have more than one big bold goal and a large one shouldn’t have more than two big bold goals. A shopping list of 5 or 10 big bold goals is simply not achievable: after all, achieving the big bold goal requires laser-like focus and you only have one or two lasers.
About the Author:
Read Dolph Ward Goldenbrug's Bio
Last year, I took an amazing trip to South Africa and literally drove the perimeter of the country. Like many developing countries, South Africa’s transportation infrastructure resembles the United States before Eisenhower’s highway investments. These countries typically have two-lane national roads that don’t compare with our interstates.
Early in our first day’s drive, we encountered this sign:
And the sign was 100% accurate – we hit about five potholes over the next 5 kilometers. While we feared a broken axel or busted tire on at least a couple of the potholes, I was very curious about the warning signs.
Someone working for a government entity was aware of the potholes, commissioned thousands of signs for various areas of the country, and paid workers to install them in the worst areas. I’m sure they did this to contain costs, but it still seemed odd that they wouldn’t just fix the potholes.
I soon realized, however, that our nonprofit organizations often do the equivalent of installing a “pothole” sign. We do this in many ways:
What are your organization’s pothole signs? What can you do to fill the potholes and remove the sign?
About the Host:
Read Dolph Ward Goldenburg's Bio