Posts Tagged ‘facilitation’

How to run a powerful, purposeful board retreat

There are many good reasons to conduct a board retreat: to create or revisit the organization’s mission, vision, and strategic plan; clarify roles and responsibilities; orient new members; reconnect and re-energize a stagnant board; and/or address critical issues or opportunities, to name a few. However, bringing the entire board together in person can be a challenge. So, to get them to come—and really want to be there—you need to create a focused, meaningful, and enjoyable experience for everyone. Here are some ideas for board retreats that really hit the mark.

Design and Planning

First, identify the purpose and specific outcomes you want from the retreat. Is it time for strategic planning? Are you trying to solve an important organizational issue? Do you need to revitalize a stagnant board? Schedule a planning meeting with the organization’s CEO, board chair, and other leadership team members as needed to determine the retreat purpose and outcomes; learn what’s most pressing for the organization; better understand board dynamics; and assess board engagement, strengths, weaknesses, etc. In addition, discuss timing, duration, location, number of attendees, etc. You don’t need to finalize all the details yet, just enough to develop a draft agenda.

After meeting with organizational and board leaders, it’s a good idea to have brief “input” conversations with some or all board members to understand their views, gather topic ideas and get participants excited about the retreat. Input conversations can last anywhere from 20-40 minutes. Some sample input questions include:

  • What do you think is working well with the organization?
  • What would you like to see the organization do more of, do better or do differently?
  • What do you think the organization should stop doing?
  • What are three things the organization should focus on over the next 12 months?
  • What is your vision for this organization over the next three years?
  • What would help you feel more engaged and useful as a board member?
  • What would help the board work even more effectively together?

Using the information from your leadership planning meeting and input conversations, craft an action-focused agenda that incorporates the retreat’s purpose and desired outcomes. Some things to consider:

  • Avoid status or progress reporting. Instead, have participants review status reports ahead of time and focus sessions on generating ideas, solving problems, making decisions, etc.
  • Structure adequate time for building relationships. Schedule time to eat together, walk together and learn about one another. It’s ideal if you can hold a retreat over two days that includes a social dinner.
  • Build some flexibility into your agenda to accommodate hot topics or deeper dives into important issues.
  • Create discrete sessions with time blocks of one to three hours to help participants digest information, offer natural break points and provide variety. Have each session build upon one another in a logical order based on your goals.
  • As you create the agenda, decide what output you want from each session and plan for how to capture key issues, ideas, resources, outcomes and action steps from each session. This will make documenting the retreat much easier.
  • Schedule ample time (at least 45 minutes) at the end to discuss action items, accountability, takeaways, appreciations and other closing activities.
  • Decide on any supporting materials, resources and preparatory work. Make sure participants have the agenda, materials and instructions at least one week before the retreat. Communicate with board members throughout the planning process to answer questions, remind them about pre-work, help them with logistics, etc.


While it’s not uncommon for a board or staff member to facilitate a retreat, having outside facilitation helps every participant fully engage in the retreat. Also, an outside facilitator also helps reduce bias or undue influence and may notice and address board issues or dynamics not obvious to participants. Some other good practices for facilitation:

  • Start with a warm-up that gets everyone talking. An easy exercise is to pose a couple of questions that participants discuss with one or two people next to them. It’s good to include one personal and one organizational question.
  • Announce the retreat objectives and outcomes, preview the agenda, cover any logistics and discuss how participants can get the most from their time together.
  • Set expectations up front for how you will facilitate the retreat, such as balancing participation, managing interruptions, encouraging constructive comments, etc.
  • Capture highlights from each session using flipcharts, a note taker, recording device, etc. Some facilitators find it useful to use separate flipcharts for ideas, resources, action steps, “parking lot” or other categories as needed.
  • Check in periodically about participants’ comfort level, questions, concerns, etc. The more transparent you are as a facilitator, the more the participants can relax and trust the process.
  • After a long or complex session, briefly summarize highlights and outcomes. If there is time, ask participants to share their own takeaways from the session.
  • If the discussion veers off the agenda, refer back to the retreat objectives and outcomes. Ask if this conversation supports their overall retreat goals, if the topic supersedes other agenda items or if it can be covered elsewhere.
  • Have plenty of food, beverages, time for breaks and table toys to help quell the “fidgets.” Periodically check people’s energy and take a short break if needed.

Outcomes and Next Steps

For a retreat to be worthwhile, participants must know their ideas and decisions will actually go somewhere after the event. It’s equally important for board members to understand their own responsibilities to take actions after the retreat. Here are some ideas for documenting the retreat and creating accountable action steps:

  • After each session, capture key points and outline next steps, responsible parties and time frames. Use action verbs to clarify what needs to be done (write, call, review, schedule, plan, etc.).
  • The final session should be used to summarize all next steps. Discuss how participants will hold themselves and others accountable for taking action. In addition, invite participants to share takeaways, appreciations, personal commitments and other comments.
  • Consider pairing people to accomplish tasks. This helps boost accountability and build board member relationships between meetings.
  • Move away from a “minutes” mindset. Try to organize retreat notes logically rather than strictly chronologically. Participants won’t necessarily remember who said what when so it’s useful to group related ideas and actions together.
  • Suggest ways to incorporate progress checks from the retreat into subsequent board meetings. For example, if you do a strategic plan, organize future board meeting agendas to parallel strategic goal areas from the plan.

Board retreats can be powerful events that help clarify organizational vision, address complex issues and energize a board. With collaborative planning, a steady focus on the desired outcomes, skillful facilitation, and the willingness to hold people accountable, you can transform your board retreat from a necessary evil to the event of the year!

See also:

The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership

A Fundraising Guide for Nonprofit Board Members

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Good facilitation, great results


Many of us have sat through stultifying meetings that result in little progress or less than substantive achievement. Unfortunately, they are all too common. This article suggests one solution, facilitation, and explores what it can offer your organization.

Strong facilitation brings engaged dialogue, full participation, active and effective problem solving and a focused process aimed at achieving meeting objectives. As important, great facilitation can also move a group through the less tangible aspects of working together, deepening understanding, building stronger relationships and attending to the “glue” that makes for good working practices.

Why work with a facilitator?

A facilitator brings an impartial observer’s perspective that enables strong assessment of what needs to be addressed. Facilitators create a clear agenda and process and ensure that the meeting maintains focus and momentum, while also observing, listening deeply, and being attentive to the interplay between participants and the multiple nuances in a group. Facilitators also prioritize attending to and resolving issues that block progress.They are comfortable assisting a group in confronting difficult topics, navigating prickly interpersonal issues, and moving through a safe and boundaried process of dialogue to resolution.

Facilitation should keep participants interested and engaged. Depending on the needs of a session or group, great facilitation can be fun and provocative by encouraging active participation, engaging participants in dialogue, and oftentimes, creating opportunities for experiential learning, creativity, different thinking, and working as a group in new ways.

Advantages of facilitation

Provides an impartial observer’s perspective

Creates an open and safe environment

Maintains a meeting’s focus and momentum, achieving closure and planned outcomes

Builds skill and often knowledge within a group

Strengthens relationships and good work practices

Provides empathy, compassion and wisdom to support group process

Ensures an engaging, interesting and often fun process.

The role and function of a facilitator

A facilitator’s key function is usually to work with a group to ensure it has a successful and productive meeting. A good facilitator can play multiple roles, including guide, partner, coach, teacher, problem solver and mediator. Experienced facilitators are quick to think on their feet and have the flexibility to dip in and out of various roles according to the needs of a group.

One of the key advantages of having external facilitators is that their skill set and detachment from the process enables them to look at an issue or situation many different ways and to see multiple possibilities for problem solving or next steps. These abilities translate to the group with whom they are working to help it think creatively. This freedom to think “outside-the-box” of day-to-day work can be liberating for participants.

Skills and attributes of excellent facilitators

Keen observation

Acute listening skills

Strong intuition

Cultural competency

Sense of humor and play

High emotional quotient and ability for self-reflection

Flexibility and nimbleness

Creates a container for the work

Facilitates building trust and stronger relationships

Effectively manages conflict

Understands group dynamics

Uses a broad set of tools and processes

Asks powerful questions

Stages of facilitation

Framing the session: A facilitator will assist a team in defining and clarifying a meeting’s purpose, ensuring that it has clear, strong and attainable outcomes. Here, the facilitator will also help assess who needs to participate.

Process and preparation: Attending to the following elements can produce a vital, focused and productive work session:

Determine the meeting elements, including knowing what work must be accomplished, planning next steps and actions, defining roles and responsibilities, delineating a clear decision making process and describing how information will be shared.

A strong agenda is critical for the success of any meeting, including flow of topics, presenters, time allocations and pacing, and breaks.

Tools and processes are chosen to match a meeting’s needs and move participants through different aspects of work and engagement. The field offers a diversity of innovative tools and processes, including The Circle, Theory U, Appreciative Inquiry, World Café, and creative exercises drawing on performing and visual arts. Aspects to consider are varying activities, small or large group or pair work, and group culture.

Ground rules can be helpful at meetings and facilitators will help create them, acknowledging differences in real or perceived power, e.g., between Board members and program staff. For example, a team might want to establish a safe meeting space with open dialogue, signaling that participants can take risks in engaging each other without distraction or fear of rejection.

Logistics required for each section should be identified and someone tasked with attending to practical needs, e.g., acquiring meeting space, meeting supplies, food and beverage, audio-visual needs.

Communicating with participants before the meeting is important to provide meeting logistics, the agenda and any preparatory materials, and preparatory work that is expected from participants (e.g. reading, presenting, critical questions).

Opening: A strong start is important to get participants energized. Depending on a meeting’s focus, how well people know each other, and organizational culture, a facilitator may want a group to engage in an opening exercise. For example, with a newly formed group, a relationship-building exercise can help participants get to know more about each other and begin interacting, setting the tone for a lively, engaging session.

Listening and synthesizing: Great facilitators bring a well-developed capacity for listening at the individual and group level. When participants are heard, they can more fully participate and listen to others. Listening at the group level combines with intuition and an understanding of group dynamics to help the facilitator effectively work with the group, specifically during troublesome spots. The capacity to synthesize is important at key moments to summarize progress and test that everyone has reached the same understanding or agreement.

Decision making and closure: At a facilitated meeting, groups work through a process to achieve closure and develop solutions or goals and outcomes for future work, while experiencing effective decision making and building skills in these areas. At this stage, next steps with clear actions, timelines for completion, prioritization, and team assignments can be agreed upon and unresolved issues acknowledged for future attention.

Wrap up and reflection: At the end of a meeting, facilitators build in time for reflection to allow participants to think about and learn from the process and their engagement. There are many ways to do this, and questions such as these can be helpful in prompting reflection: What worked? What didn’t work? What might we do differently next time? What successes did I experience? What challenges did I learn from? What did I learn today about myself?

Often a facilitator’s best work is hidden behind the scenes and subtly in the room. However, these are the direct indicators of a successful session: the process has gone well and seamlessly, participants have left beaming and energized, critical decisions were made, next steps were described, individual responsibilities were clarified, relationships were improved and a new shared understanding was developed. The facilitator is content and another group has successfully arrived at its destination!

See also:

Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making

Death by Meeting

The Weave: Participatory Process Design Guide for Strategic Sustainable Development

Facilitating Reflection: A Manual for Leaders and Educators

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