Monday, September 3, 2007

September 03, 2007

Hi everybody.

"And the beat goes on.............."

"And I can tell by your friendly face, there's a meeting here tonight...."

I have facilitated a score of Board Retreats in the past 18 months. Having been on numerous Boards of Directors, both for profit and nonprofit, as well as the Executive Director / President of several organizations, again both public and private I have some familiarity with how those who wear different hats approach this common tool and depending of which hat you wear, you are likely to approach these gatherings from very different perspectives, sets of expectations, and the way you prefer the agendas to be set. I saw these meetings in much different ways as a Board member than I did as the staff person running the organization.

Like anything else, this seemingly simple and easy device to help organizations set priorities, review programs, develop short and long term strategies and deal with current situations and issues turns out not to be nearly as simple and easy to do well as one might think. As facilitation of Board Retreats is becoming a growing segment of my consulting time, I'd like to share with you some basic lessons I've learned so far.

Why hold the Retreat?
Ideally, I suppose the concept of the Annual Board Retreat would be to review the progress of the organization as measured against its current Strategic Plan and to use the time to make adjustments and accommodations to changing circumstances. The world is not ideal of course, so frequently Retreats become sessions to deal with pressing problems and obstacles (the most pressing usually being financial challenges some catastrophic and critical, some routine and recurring).

Here are some common focuses for Retreats:

1) It is common for Retreat agendas to center on reviewing, analyzing, and tinkering with new or existent programs of the organization. (Sometimes this discussion is framed by the idea that the organization has reached a crossroads and must make a decision as to which way to proceed).

2) The second most common focus seems to be on the organizations finances.

3) Retreats are sometimes used as planning sessions for an upcoming milestone event often fundraising or celebratory (such an a big anniversary year).

4) Retreats sometimes are used as budget planning sessions for the upcoming fiscal year;

5) Sometimes treated as an intervention strategy in a crisis situation be it financial, personnel, philosophic or programmatic. This use is often precipitated by some event or confrontation having occurred and frequently involves a division or rift between factions on the board, or between the Board (or factions thereof) and the key executive staff.

6) Finally, Retreats try to deal (usually unsuccessfully) with all of the above and more.
All of these focuses are legitimate. And the Retreat that is confined to a presentation of status reports and new programs and actions under consideration is also a valid use of the time. In part, the Retreat also offers the opportunity, irrespective of the agenda items, for the Board to interact with each other, forge working bonds, become more involved and familiar with the organization its programs, challenges, successes and gray areas and with the staff, and in the process increase their contributions as board members.

It is advisable for the Board Chair (or Executive Committee) in concert with the Executive Director and Senior Staff to come to a consensus as to what the purpose of any given years Retreat will be.

The biggest mistake made in holding Board Retreats is the mistaken assumption that the time (usually less than a day) is sufficient to deal with all of the issues, problems and decisions to be made.

Here then are some observations:

1. Staging a successful Board Retreat depends on planning, planning and more planning. Far too many organizations, either devote too little time to this part of the exercise, or, worse, they skip the planning part altogether except for creating a bare bones agenda. I have seen numerous organizations put together the retreat agenda in less than five minutes either on the phone or by email. This lack of prior planning and careful consideration of the issues the organization faces, the decisions that need to be made and the various scenarios of the consequences of those decisions virtually guarantees the Retreat will be minimally successful at best.

2. Focus and prioritize. The reason planning is so critical, is the almost universal mistake made by nonprofit organizations in erroneously assuming they will accomplish far more than the time will allow. This is perhaps the most common of all erroneous assumptions on which Board Retreats are based the idea that in a single day, the organization can address, fully vet and discuss, and come to conclusions and solutions to challenges and obstacles it faces. The fact is that a single day Board Retreat is a finite period of time, much more limited than people think, and you absolutely must prioritize your agenda and deal with a manageable number of issues if you want the meeting to be successful. You cannot reasonably expect to effectively deal with a long list of issues and challenges, nor can you adequately address any specific crisis situation in a single day. Don't try.

Limit the issues: Thus it is essential to prioritize to pick and choose among the many issues facing the organization and concentrate on the most important and immediate ones, and to decide, before hand, what decisions the Board will have to make at the Retreat to enable the outcomes that are desired.

3. Don't schedule a long day retreat. Another common error is in scheduling a too long a day for the retreat. You can start early, but you cannot then reasonably expect that any time longer than a normal eight hour day will yield productive results (and 6 hours is more realistic). You cannot help but waste some of your time, - people will get off course, ideas lead to new, unanticipated discussions, there is often no immediate consensus on key issues and it takes more time than you think to set up the discussions and summarize or present facts to assimilate. And then people just get tired. The end of the retreat must produce some kind of resolution to whatever the challenges the issues addressed presented that is the whole purpose of a retreat. If the day is too long, when your Board gets to the point where they need fresh thinking and ideas to come to consensus decision making and specific steps for post retreat action, there will not be the energy left conducive to formulation of an organizational strategy.

Don't forget to take breaks along the way.

4. Prior consideration of the agenda: While many organizations have an annual Board Retreat held roughly the same time each year, other organizations schedule a Board Retreat when they think the time is right. In either case, an Agenda that focuses on the most pressing needs and issues, arrived at by some prior consensus, is necessary if the day will yield results. The more input into the agenda from the participants, the easier the discussions will proceed and the better the chance that the time will be used productively. An Agenda is a guideline not just an outline.

5. Input and more input: A successful Retreat is directly proportionate to the amount of planning you do BEFORE the actual day. As expectations can be widely variant, it is important that everybody starts with the same expectations as to what will be the focus, what the priorities are (and are not), how the day will be structured and what the anticipated outcomes will be at the end. All Board members should have the opportunity to weigh in with their perspective, and those who choose not to, should at least be given the opportunity to review the thoughts and suggestions of those that do. Anonymity can be maintained if that is an issue. Input can easily be obtained via telephone calls, emails and the like.

6. Think Physical: Some consideration should be given to where the Retreat will be held accessibility, parking, comfort, room to work, pleasantness, food, drink etc. The room environment should encourage frank but businesslike discussion; it should be comfortable and pleasant -- you are going to spend a long day there. Such retreats are frequently held at the home of a Board member, and this is acceptable, though I personally prefer a more business setting - board rooms can be ideal.

7. Facilitation: Some thought should be given to what kind of meeting facilitation would work best. Do you want a quiet hand to gently guide the discussion, someone to act essentially as a cheerleader to encourage open dialogue, or do you need a strong take charge presence to insure the meeting flows and isn't dominated by one person or faction? Is the Retreat likely to be friendly or contentious? Are there major personnel, financial, program or other issues to be resolved? Do you want someone known to the organization to help with the facilitation or do you want someone from outside? Some organizations don't bother with a facilitator, but 90% of organizations would be greatly helped were they to secure professional help. But avoid the other mistake - that after you have hired someone to facilitate the retreat that you no longer have to involve yourself in the planning. A good facilitator should insist that you spend time mutually assessing the priorities of the organization, the major issues and challenges it is currently facing, and what outcomes the Board would like to see come out of the retreat - and work together to set the agenda, prepare the Board, and guide the day's discussion. A good facilitator is only as good as the cooperation, input and time and energy the Board and staff are willing to put into the effort. Too many people assume the facilitator will do it all. They can't. They can only facilitate.

8. Prior tutorials: Depending on what the focus is for the Retreat, it is often a good idea to make sure that not only does everyone have all the background materials needed, but that everyone is familiar with how to read and understand those materials. Thus, if the focus of the Retreat is on financial matters, it is important that not only does every board member have the current and recent past financial statements, cash flow, budget (including year to date), assets & expenses balance sheet and other financial reports, but that every board member has been given a review / refresher course on how to read all of those reports and decipher what the accountants who prepared those reports were trying to say. Too often, Boards erroneously assume that every member is familiar and comfortable in reading and understanding all the reports given them. They aren't.

It is also important that you get background materials whether on programs, finances, fundraising, or whatever into people's hands prior to the Retreat. But having said that, it is virtually certain that a only a small percentage of any of the Board members will have time to thoroughly review those materials before the scheduled Retreat. Thus, two strategies may be employed with some success: First, make sure you summarize in as easy to read format as possible the materials you send. Somebody on staff needs to spend the time synthesizing all the volume of written materials into a concise, well presented summary. That's the best way to get more Board members to be familiar with the materials up front. Second, make it easy for them SEND the materials to them in an organized form sufficiently in advance (but not too far in advance) of the retreat. Do not, as I have seen, send them unedited materials via email and ask them to print them out and bring them to the Retreat. They won't. So even if you send the materials to be reviewed, bring enough copies for everyone to the Retreat itself as many people will forget to bring them. Finally, it is highly advisable and very productive, if you can arrange for three or four people mini half hour conference calls with Board members led by the Chair or Executive Director preferably to discuss the materials and answer questions on a scheduled basis a week before the Retreat.

9. Be Realistic: Too often Boards make financial and other projections that are too optimistic, and bear almost no relationship to reality. It is better to be conservative in projecting revenue streams, event and performance attendance, recruitment of volunteers, donation of pro bono goods and services and the results of membership drives and donor solicitations. If - at the retreat - the basic assumptions on which decisions are made for the coming year are unrealistic, then the whole foundation of the planning exercise ends up being built on a house of cards.

10. Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up: One of the single greatest mistakes nonprofit boards seem to make in holding their Retreats, is forgetting the importance of follow-up after the Retreat is over. What was actually decided? Who agreed to do what? On what timetable?

There are, of course, many more layers of strategies and points to discuss and consider in the planning and execution of successful Board Retreats. The fore mentioned points only scratch the surface of the complexities involved. Hopefully, the above thoughts will provoke your organization to spend more time considering what goes into making a really productive and successful Board Retreat. Most nonprofit organizations schedule such retreats, and appreciate their value but I have seen widely different levels of satisfaction with Retreats after the fact. If you're going to use this device and tool, you increase the chances that it will produce the outcomes you want if you spend time in the planning process. I will try to share some further thoughts about how to make your Retreat successful later this fall. I welcome any suggestions you might have based on your experiences.

I'm off to China for an adventure.

Back in October. This fall will feature more in-depth interviews, at least one HESSENIUS Group discussion and the HESSENIUS Group Annual Year End Predictions, plus a special surprise feature.

Please check out my other blog -- BARRY'S BLOG at CCI -- directed at artists hosted by the Center for Cultural Innovation - click here:

California Health Care legislation reform and its impact on artists is the current topic.

Have a great month!

Don't Quit!