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Leadership DevelopmentNonprofit Boards

A Step-by-Step Guide: Strategic Planning Retreat for Nonprofit Board Members

Over the past several weeks, we have started looking at the process of strategic planning and understanding why it is important for nonprofits and ministries. Unfortunately, some board members will groan, either inwardly or outwardly, at the very mention of strategic planning. And even more will push back at the thought of spending a day in a retreat planning the future of the organization.

Perhaps, their groans are justified. In the past, many organizations spent a lot of time and energy going through the strategic planning process, but then placed the plan on a shelf never to be seen again.

The strategic plan is intended to be a living document. Throughout the year, the plan should guide the work and decisions of the organization. It should be on hand to refer to it in board meetings and during program planning sessions. Don’t be afraid to ask the question, “how does this decision align with our strategic plan?”

Getting Board Members on Board

Getting board members on board begins way before the mention of strategic planning. Board members need to be excited and motivated about the nonprofit or ministry and the work it is doing.  Although staff are actively engaged in the day-to-day work of the organization, board members often do not have an opportunity to connect with the mission.

  1. Connect board members to the work of the organization – During the board recruitment process (which we will talk about another time) board members begin to truly understand the mission and vision of the organization. It continues during every interaction with board members through the sharing of stories and the work being done by the organization.
  2. Connect board members to the mission – Keep the mission front and center in all board work. Use the mission as a tool to evaluate all decisions being made—-operational, programmatic, and fiscal. Begin each board meeting with a “Mission Minute” to give board members an opportunity to learn about a program, meet a client, or hear a success story.
  3. Connect board members to the future – Too often organizations spend board meetings focusing on the past. By spending time at each board meeting looking forward, board members begin to understand that one of their primary roles is to look ahead, it becomes a more natural process.

The Strategic Planning Retreat

Begin planning the retreat several months in advance. This will help ensure the date gets marked on the calendar of all board members. Then, at the board meetings leading up to the retreat, spend a few minutes building the momentum for the day. Finally, one month before “retreat day” provide board members with an agenda.

Plan to hold the retreat at an off-site location that is conducive to thinking and relaxation. Provide meals – be sure to ask about any dietary restrictions. Your goal is to make the event one that board members want to come to—one they won’t want to miss.

To prepare for the retreat, you will need to build your agenda…. What to include? Begin the day by spending a short period of time looking at where the organization has been. Since the focus of the day is to look forward, this part of the agenda should not take a lot of time. Detailed information can be provided in advance of the retreat, here, the focus will be on the highlights.

Now spend some time looking at the trends and challenges happening externally that may influence the work of the organization. Do this research in advance of the retreat.  Again, share the highlights. It may even be helpful to ask board members what they are seeing, what challenges they have identified, prior to providing them with the research.

Next, begin to ask questions!

What does the organization do well? What does it do not so well? What opportunities are there for growth?  Use interactive activities to get the group involved in answering these questions. Breaking up into different groups throughout the day helps generate fresh ideas and encourages new connections.

Once the questions are asked, and the board generates thoughts and ideas, it is natural to take the information gathered and use it to look forward. Begin painting a picture of where you want to be in the next three years. Summarize the results for the group and tie the day together by getting thoughts from everyone present. Everyone should leave feeling like the day was productive and their contribution was important in developing the written plan. Before dismissal, ensure board members understand the next steps and provide them with a timeline of when they can expect information.

After the planning retreat, the consultant and the Executive Director will need to spend some time compiling all of the information gathered and developing a plan to bring back to the board.

Remember, “Without vision, the people will perish” Proverbs 29:18.  Creating a vision for the future is essential to the long term health of the organization.

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