Anatomy of a Board/Staff Retreat

Anatomy of a Board/Staff Retreat A Step-by-Step Scenario

By Robert E. Miss, MAC, CPFR, BoardSource CGT

An organizational retreat can be a powerful inter-dynamic process to energize boards and staff to work as a team.   An effectively facilitated board/staff retreat is an engine for positive outcomes and a vision for the future, a prime-moving catalyst for change.

So you might say that this all sounds very wonderful, but does it work? Can you really get board and staff to work together as a team?  Up front planning is the key.   Let’s describe the planning and run up to a board/staff retreat with a fairly typical human services agency. This exercise is based on real life experiences.   The organization and persons are fictional, but not unlike many board and staff members.


United Rescue Services, Inc. (URS), founded 30 years ago in a city of 120,000 population, operates a soup kitchen, several food pantries, a homeless men’s shelter and a shelter for women who have suffered domestic abuse. The operating budget is $12 million, 65 employees, 125 volunteers.   They own the buildings that house the shelters. The soup kitchen is run out of the United Brethren Church downtown. The food pantries are housed in church facilities, a veterans hospital, and a nonprofit assisting mental health patients. 94% of URS’s income is comprised of government contracts, 6% from foundation grants and donations.


URS BOARD Harvey: retired school teacher, on the board for 30 years, is one of the founding members of United Rescue Services (URS). Although the URS has term limits of two sets of three years, the board has waived the term-limit requirement for Harvey out of respect for his history with the organization. Harvey is an elder of the United Brethren Church where URS was founded. He is one of the last leaders who started the original soup kitchen in the church.

Peter: a former minister of the United Brethren Church, has served on the URS board for 20 years. He changed careers 15 years ago, completed law school, and is now an administrative law judge.   Peter helped start the homeless men’s shelter.   The term limit requirement has repeatedly been waived for him as an early leader in forging the URS mission.


Theodore Meade III: his grandfather was a United Brethren Church elder, his late father a founding member of URS. Ted is an art dealer who joined the URS board to carry on the family tradition of charitable support of URS, principally through the Meade Family Foundation.   He and his wife Nancy were honored at their gala last year. Ted and Nancy have informally alternated as board members over the past 12 years.

Dennis: owner and president of Iron Castings, Inc., a $15 million company that manufactures and installs iron railings and stairs into institutional building projects.   Dennis was persuaded to join the board by his golfing buddy Brian who currently serves on the board. In fact, Dennis agreed to chair the URS golf outing last year.   It was considered a success. He was voted board chair earlier this year.     Dennis is a Vietnam veteran who suffered from PTSD for many years, has an interest in veterans affairs.

Brian: a senior vice president for human resources at a Fortune 500 company with a manufacturing plant on the outskirts of town. He’s the one who brought Dennis on the board. They met at a Chamber of Commerce networking meeting. Brian was approved without question. It was felt that he would bring other businessmen to the board.

Anthony: a partner at one of the area’s most prestigious law firms. He specializes in trusts and estates.   The URS staff have tried to persuade Anthony to bring one or more of his clients to participate in fundraising. He half-heartedly agreed to follow through, but feels this is a conflict of interest with his clients.   He may approach one of the equity partners in the firm to support this year’s golf outing.

Kevin: a young banker just starting his career, Vice President, Relationship Manager at a major bank. He sought board membership through Anthony, a current board member, to build his resume and possibly move URS’s banking activities to his company.   Anthony nominated Keven because he felt that the organization needed new blood and a younger point of view.

Heather: a principal in a public relations and marketing firm with 7 employees. She believes the URS staff and board don’t have a clue about marketing and public relations.   But she has not volunteered to help out.   This will drain her time away from the business, she feels.

Linda: a social worker who runs a division of a large human services agency in the city. She is also a passionate political activist.   She feels somewhat intimidated by some of the other business and professional people on the board. But she and the executive director have been friends for many years.   The executive director assures Linda that her perspective and her vote are important.

Carlos: a certified public accountant, who recently left a large accounting firm and opened his own practice.   He has begun to build a practice among Hispanic-owned small businesses. Carlos at times feels that he is the token Latin board member. However, he has an idea to propose other Hispanic board candidates, which could also help his accounting practice. So far the persons he has approached have been reluctant to get involved.

Derrick: a newspaper executive who was recently laid off.   He is president of a very active African-American men’s organization. He hopes that his relationship with other URS board members will lead to a new job.

Fred: a retired entrepreneur who made a fortune during the bubble but was smart enough to get out early.   He was considered a real find as a board member who would make sizeable contributions. He has not yet seen a program to support.   He is holding out for something that would clearly demonstrate a positive change among the population that URS serves. Fred is considering leaving the board because he has no role. He feels they are interested only in his money.

STAFF Executive Director Judith: has been on the staff since URS’s founding 30 years ago. She became executive director 15 years ago. She’s thinking about retirement, but does not know if the board is savvy enough to bring in the right person to take her place. Judith prides herself on a consistent track record in negotiating government contracts. She spends a lot of time and energy cultivating government officials and politicians.

Director of Development Paul: has been DoD for two years.   He has difficulty in getting across to Judith the importance of support from the community and the concept of resource development rather than the limiting concept of fundraising.   He feels that the executive director is satisfied to rely on government contracts rather than having the perseverance to expand and diversify the funding base.

Chief Financial Officer Norman: Former Deputy Director & Comptroller of the city’s Department of Social Services. Feels he needs additional staff to handle vouchers to satisfy government requirements in order for URS to be paid in a timely manner for service provision to clients. He also needs recordkeeping software and systems to be updated and upgraded. Beyond the day-to-day effort to run an efficient financial operation, he sees unsettling signs of more government cutbacks.

VOLUNTEER Rodney: a former client of URS who had lost his family when fire raged through their home in a poor section of town. Rodney ended up on the street, depressed and out of work.   Before the fire he had worked as a foreman in a construction firm.   Rodney got off the street ironically by serving four years in prison for robbery before being granted parole for good behavior.. He was fortunate enough to find work with a nonprofit agency that assists ex-convicts’adjustment to life on the outside. His new job is as workforce coordinator. He has been able to renew some of his old contacts in the construction trade.

The Scenario Leading up to the Retreat

STAFF POLITICS Paul, the Director of Development, has campaigned for a board retreat since he arrived on the scene two years ago.   The long standing board members have resisted the idea. Several of the newer board members see a board retreat as a wedge to force changes they perceive to be needed.   Judith, the Executive Director, has acknowledged the need for a retreat but has not pushed it.   Finally, Paul has convinced Norman, Chief Financial Officer, to push for the retreat to review financial needs and initiate strategic planning to address the need for additional support. Norman is very concerned about cuts in government funding this year with forecasts for even more cuts in the coming year. After much discussion, the Executive Committee decides to plan a board/staff retreat.

BOARD POLITICS Judith asks Paul to prepare a retreat proposal to be presented at the next board meeting.   However, she doesn’t campaign for it in advance. Sensing this, Paul asks Norman to make a case for a retreat at the next board finance committee meeting. The finance committee shares Norman’s concern about government cuts. At the next board meeting the idea of a board retreat is approved.   After much discussion about having a respected board member run the retreat versus an outside facilitator, Paul is asked to interview three companies which facilitate retreats and to make a recommendation. Judith makes it clear that she will also review the three candidates.

RETREAT FACILITATOR SEARCH Subsequent to the board meeting, Paul is contacted by board member Kevin who recommends his former college professor Dr. Malcom Treadwell to facilitate the board retreat.   Kevin states that Dr. Treadwell heads the political science department, is a resource person for the local TV station during elections, and conducts classes in negotiation skills at the college.   Paul asks Kevin to have Dr. Treadwell to give him a call. Judith also makes her own recommendation. She suggests Sandy Prudeau, a trusted colleague, now retired, who ran a social services organization in the Washington, DC area. Judith apparently had already contacted Sandy. Paul received an email with an attached resume from Sandy the very day that Judith suggested her.

Paul, an active member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, reached out to several of his AFP colleagues.   The most consistent name suggested was an independent fundraising and marketing firm based in the county where URS operates.   Upon checking their web site Paul discovered that the firm, Westlake Resource Development, Inc., had a strong track record working with boards of directors in a variety of ways, including what they termed, board leadership retreats.

Paul and Judith interviewed all three candidates.   It was clear that Sandy Prudeau saw the meeting mostly as a way to catch up with Judith.   She was mildly interested. Professor Treadwell made a very good case for the need to research the various needs and issues in advance. He saw the board retreat as an open debate among warring factions, with himself as the peacemaker.   Two representatives of Westlake Associates came prepared with an outline of steps for preparing, conducting, and following up a board retreat. They were chosen.

Westlake Resource Development, Inc.: a multi-service resource development company with a primary focus on human services organizations.   They have specialists in fundraising and development, event planning, management and governance issues, and strategic planning. Westlake Representatives assigned to URS: Gary: a background in assisting nonprofits with board development and governance issues. He has a thorough grasp of IRS regulations and laws affecting nonprofits. He had worked in the charities bureau of the state attorney general’s office. Fran: a background in marketing and fundraising with several large nonprofit agencies before joining the Westlake consulting firm. Both Gary and Fran are experienced facilitators and group leaders.

PLANNING MEETING What Outcomes? Emphasizing that pre-planning was essential to the retreat’s success, Gary and Fran of Westlake scheduled a meeting with selected board and staff leaders as soon as possible. This would include Judith, Paul, Norman, board chair Dennis, and chair of the finance committee Brian.  The URS folks expected this meeting to involve mostly the logistics of the retreat. Westlake at the outset posed a hard question: What outcomes do you want from the retreat?   Norman had the most clear and immediate answer, i.e., a close look at the financial challenges and ways to create more income.   Much to Paul’s satisfaction, Dennis felt that board members did not know their roles versus staff roles.   He was aware that some of the long-serving board members tended to micromanage the staff.   Judith maintained that URS was not well enough known in the community.   Paul felt that this concern might enable her to see the connection between community awareness and private support.

What Arrangements? Westlake posed an unexpected question: Who are you going to invite to inspire the group?   The URS folks had not thought about such an added dimension.   Westlake threw out a couple of examples.   Paul countered with a suggestion: Rodney Williams, former client in the men’s homeless shelter, now an inspiration to all for helping people get jobs. “Yes, and an ex-con!!” was one reaction.   Westlake observed that  Rodney could inspire the retreat attendees and validate what URS is doing for people.

Where and when would the retreat take place?   Norman insisted that the retreat be held on the URS premises to save money. Westlake quickly discouraged this idea.   An off-site retreat has the advantage of neutralizing issues and providing a new point of view.   How long?   Judith felt that one long day, like a Saturday would be the least difficult for board members to attend.   Westlake also advised against jamming everything into one long day. People phase out and lose concentration by the late afternoon.   They strongly suggested a Friday night into Saturday.   After much discussion, the group agreed. Now that the leadership had aired their major concerns, the Westlake representatives said they would draft an agenda for the retreat.

THE AGENDA The Westlake consultants understood that many organizations have an unrealistic assumption that their issues will be resolved in a single board/staff retreat. They make a clear case that the retreat can clarify issues and lay the groundwork for solutions. The Westlake approach, like many facilitators, emphasizes the need to understand the basics of operating and governing a mission-driven corporation.   Based on the discussion at the planning meeting these are the key issues they identified to be addressed.

*Financial Challenges   -Budget projections     -Operational needs *Board vs Staff Roles and Responsibilities *Marketing and Fundraising    -Community support and involvement       -Broader fundraising program

Proposed Agenda Location: Bridgeton Corporate Conference Center (20 miles away) Friday Night *Social Hour shortly after arrival *Dinner Speaker: Rodney Williams, volunteer and former client, on his experiences with URS.    He rocks everyone at the dinner by making a plea that URS stop treating clients as victims or          second class citizens and start a job program.

Saturday Segment 1   Governance and Operations Review (8:00 a.m.) In Your Own Words Session: Why are you on the board or why do you work at URS? What do you perceive at the mission of URS?

Segment 2 Roles & Responsibilities Westlake provides an extensive roles and responsibilities questionnaire. They use this as an exercise to have an open discussion to achieve clarity and commitment, underscoring the basics of board and staff responsibilities, lines of authority, areas of joint responsibility and teamwork for all to understand.

Segment 3 Financial Update Norman and board president Dennis present an overview of budget projections and funding challenges. Executive Director Judith gives an analysis of government support for the new year.
Segment 4   Fundraising & Marketing Update Paul presents an overview of fundraising results this year, plans for next year and the challenges to build a resource development program to offset government cuts.

Board member Heather has agreed to form and ad hoc committee with the mandate to outline possible ways for URS to have more of a presence in the community.

Lunch Break (one hour) The Executive Committee had pushed for a speaker at lunch, but Westlake strongly disagreed. They knew that the attendees would need a clear break with no more information to digest, only their lunch

Segment 5 Listing All Issues Raised Westlake facilitates a free-ranging discussion of issues and challenges, based specifically on the information conveyed in the morning sessions.

Afternoon Break (15 minutes)

Segment 6 Prioritizing the Issues Gary and Fran emphasize that this is an opportunity for attendees to “own” the insights and outcomes of the retreat.   The group ranks the issues, challenges and opportunities by priority, timing, budgeting, and assignments.   What are the issues that can be addressed in the context of the retreat, and what will need more discussion and research after the retreat by board, staff, or ad hoc committees?

Segment 7 Summarizing Results The group members are asked what they see as the take-aways from the retreat. Westlake works with the leadership to summarize the results. Westlake announces that they will draw up a summary report and will appear at the next board meeting to discuss the report.

Possible Outcomes Board retreats are facilitated as a guided conversation aimed at productive outcomes. Every mix of board and staff has a unique chemistry, with group versus individual perceptions and expectations. The open forum of a retreat will allow for unspoken issues to be brought up and discussed. What could be the possible outcomes to the URS board/staff retreat?

Teamwork: By breaking the attendees into two groups, mixing board members and staff in each group when they undertook the Roles and Responsibilities questionnaire, barriers were broken down between board and staff. The social hour on Friday night also created a camaraderie not seen before.

Fiscal Challenges: In the open forum of the retreat, Norman was able to provide a totally transparent and unvarnished report on the financial state of the agency. Members of the finance committee backed his findings and responded with a proposal to expand his staff to meet the need for more efficiency in assuring income from government contracts.   They also voted for Paul to upgrade the software in tracking grants and contributions.   Judith had dragged her feet on these changes.

Fundraising: In a forthright discussion about the lack of private donations, the facilitators ask Paul, the DoD, what specific program could be initiated that would yield income from private donors. His answer was a planned giving program.   The facilitators focus on Anthony, asking if he would give Paul advice on initiating a program or even assist by heading up a planning committee to initiate a planned giving program.   Having been inspired by the conversation on mission and why others were serving on the board, Anthony agrees. He realizes that there are several clients who have asked him for guidance regarding charities in their wills.

Marketing: Heather raised a question about the name of the organization, stating that the word, Rescue, raises negative and outdated images of victimization.   The facilitators ask Heather if she would volunteer to form a group to explore a new name. Heather, reluctant to take on an ongoing assignment, agrees to take on this project. She feels that it may help her business as a case study.

Community Programs and Involvement: Dennis, Brian, and Rodney struck up an informal alliance to encourage URS to launch a job skills training program for their clients. Judith pointed out that staff way already stretched thin. Paul assured them that this kind of program would attract funding from multiple sources. The consensus was to move ahead. The Dennis, Brian, Rodney trio agreed to draft a plan with Paul’s assistance.

Board Development: A tense situation arose when Carlos raised the question of term limits for board members.   As a member of the Hispanic community, Carlos was interested in more diversity on the board. He felt that he could recruit other Latin business owners. The facilitators initiated a line of conversation that described the multiple duties of a nominating committee. As a result, a suggestion was put forth that the nominating committee undertake a research and review of several key governance areas, i.e., term limits, emeritus advisory committee for long term board members, and a board recruitment plan.   Linda advised the group that there was no board orientation process. Her agency had an excellent board orientation which included a facilities tour.   She volunteered to form a board/staff committee to develop a board orientation plan.

Retreat Ends on Time Late Afternoon.   Several board members stayed to review calendars to set up follow up meetings.

Considerations for Taking the Giant Step: Board/Staff Retreat *Commitment from the full board and senior staff. *Realistic objectives and agendas are established by key board and staff members. *An offsite location is chosen at a convenient distance for participants. *An experienced facilitator outside the organization is chosen to assure independent participation. *Make sure there is break time. Retreats are intense. Information overload can occur. *Provide an element of inspiration, a talk, short film, testimonials. *Make sure to allow for fun.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s