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Leading Your Charter Board’s Retreat Amid the Pandemic

By now, your board is used to working remotely together. You’ve been hosting your board meetings remotely, either using BoardOnTrack or a combination of tools like Zoom and Google Docs.

But now it’s time to get ready for your board’s annual retreat. And this might be your first remote retreat.

Board retreats are the time to ensure your board engages in team building, professional development, and strategic planning

Board retreats are especially necessary in this pivotal moment

Board retreats can actually help boost board member engagement.

Even in especially challenging times, and even when hosted remotely, a board retreat can help boost board member engagement.

Your board members are volunteers. And they’re dealing with the very same personal and professional stresses that everyone has faced throughout the pandemic. Board member engagement, burnout, and turnover are major concerns right now.

Your retreat is a time for board members to reconnect with each other, get reinspired about the mission, and build confidence in their role contributing to that mission.

To govern effectively through this time of intense challenge and uncertainty, board members need these connections.

Board retreats provide time for strategic planning and development.

Your regular board meetings shouldn’t last longer than two hours. Meeting monthly, that allows your board a maximum of 24 hours over the course of an entire year.

That’s not a lot of time to provide the governance your charter school or management organization needs to succeed.

And right now, the board might be facing even more difficult decisions than usual.

Last year at this time, schools were facing staff cuts, furloughs, and more, all on top of the difficulties of keeping students learning and thriving for an indeterminate period.

This year, boards are focusing on engaging better in board goals and boosting accountability, recruiting board members with an eye to DEI, and more. (Learn more about what boards told us in this year’s Charter School Governance Index.)

These things require too much time and deep focus to happen in regular board meetings.

At a retreat, you’ve got time and space to do a true strategic planning session.

Your full governance team can work together to clarify your organizational priorities for the year ahead. You’ll assess what was accomplished in the previous year, revise your priorities as needed, and define what the upcoming goals look like.

Read more about how to plan your board retreat agenda 

Here’s how hosting a board retreat remotely will be different than what you’ve done before

Even at this stage of the pandemic, holding an in-person retreat might not be possible for your board. Or, your board might be so used to meeting remotely that they simply prefer to host their retreat remotely as well.

Running a retreat remotely presents some new challenges and a few interesting benefits.

Avoid online meeting fatigue by scheduling your retreat wisely.

Zoom fatigue is real. People cannot be online and productive for the number of hours they might’ve been together in person.

But, board retreats generally require around eight hours of working time.

Even before the pandemic, charter school boards were increasingly moving away from the one- or two-day approach. Instead, breaking the work into two four-hour sessions.

Plan to do this work in even shorter bursts. You might schedule an extended board meeting in one-hour or 90-minute blocks throughout the course of a day or two. Or a series of evening sessions. Do what works for your team. Just don’t make it an online marathon.

Your remote retreat planning and prep meetings will also need to be planned wisely.

Similarly, plan your prep meetings apart from your full retreat.

You’ll most likely need each committee to meet together in advance of your full board retreat. Try to schedule those prep meetings far enough in advance of the full retreat.

Decide if and how you’ll incorporate training or bring in an outside facilitator.

If you’re incorporating training (which you absolutely should do), consider ways to expand live training with on-demand options. For instance, take a look at our free library of on-demand webinars.

You might even assign your team to review the resources around a key topic like financial oversight. (If you’re a BoardOnTrack member, you’ll have access to even more in the Resources hub.) Then use your time together to discuss what you learned, address any lingering questions, and put your knowledge into action.

Comply with your open meeting laws as necessary, even when holding your retreat remotely

In most locales, you will have to post your retreat online to be in compliance.

Open meeting laws vary from state to state, and are in constant flux right now due to COVID-19.

Check with your authorizer, legal counsel, or your state association to ensure that you are following the applicable laws and up-to-date guidance.

Four keys to preparation for any successful board retreat, remote or not

Whether you’re hosting your board retreat remotely or not, a successful charter board retreat relies on four key factors of preparation.

1. Complete a board assessment

If you take a board self-assessment, as you can do in BoardOnTrack, then you know where your board’s strengths are and where you’ve got work to do.

Strategic conversations like goal setting, or tactical ones like selecting officers, should be data-driven using the results of your annual assessments.

Again, this is particularly important right now. 

Learn how to assess your board.

2. Complete a CEO evaluation

It’s important that your CEO gets a chance to reflect on the year, and to share their thoughts with you. You’ll want to clear the air before moving forward to finalize plans for the next school year.

You might then plan time at your retreat for your CEO to share thoughts about areas to strengthen and provide recommended approaches.

See how to run a CEO evaluation using BoardOnTrack.

3. Understand your charter school’s overall priorities

In advance of your retreat, make sure that at least your board chair and CEO are on the right page about your organization’s needs and priorities for the coming year.

That’s especially important now. Schools are facing intense uncertainty about what the upcoming year will look like — both from financial and academic standpoints.

You’ll have major decisions to make at your retreat. You need to go into those conversations with a shared understanding about what’s most important to your team, what your charter promises.

Get answers to the most frequently asked questions about board retreats.

4. Prep each board committee to play a role in your retreat

Normally, the Governance Committee takes the lead on planning your retreat.

Your Governance Committee’s responsibilities include assessing the board’s strengths, ensuring the board receives necessary professional development, leading the recruiting strategy, and ensuring new trustees are oriented well. These are all things that play into a successful retreat and strategically valuable board.

If you don’t have a Governance Committee, the CEO and board chair should partner together to own this task. (And include forming a Governance Committee as one of your goals for the coming year.)

Each committee will also play a role. At minimum, each committee will have time to report out on key information, answer questions, or lead strategic discussions on their areas of focus.

For example, perhaps your Finance Committee had the goal to “Create multiyear scenarios to improve salary scale and other benefits.”

Get our complete guide to active board committees.

Measure whether your board retreat is successful

The measure of success is this: Did we make it actionable?

Measure your retreat by the action plan you left with. If you left ready to turn your discussions and decisions into action, you’ve held a successful retreat.

But, of course, you also have to follow through on that action plan. That means setting board goals. And having a way to hold your board accountable to meeting those goals.

Ideally, your board is already in the habit of setting goals over the summer, during your retreat. Defining your goals before the school year starts is really the best way to maximize the value of having goals.

Learn more about setting and meeting board goals.

Follow your board retreat with focused committee work.

Within a couple of weeks of your retreat, each committee meets to delve into the best ways to meet the organization’s goals.

For instance, the Governance Committee meets to discuss the governance-related board development topics defined at the full retreat; the Finance Committee meets to dig into the budgetary and financial objectives.

They all do the work, away from the full board meeting, developing their SMART goals and action plans.

Bring the full board back together to discuss and approve each committee’s work.

This is such an important and critical step — to keep the board informed on what exactly each of these committees is going to be working on throughout the year and to transfer the formal charge to the board, to the committees.

It’s imperative you don’t set your goals and forget them. After all, your goals dictate what you’ll accomplish this year.

Use your goals to keep every meeting focused and strategically valuable.

At every board meeting and committee meeting, review your goals and your progress towards meeting them. This keeps the board’s focus on the priorities for the year, not the personalities in the room. Perform quarterly pulse checks and do a deep dive at your annual retreat.

Learn more about putting goals into action at your retreat