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Why hold an annual board retreat?

Your annual board retreat is where you do deep strategic work and important board-level work like reelect your officers — your board chair, your vice chair, and other key positions.

It’s where you make amendments to the bylaws, if needed, and set your annual calendar for the following year.

Annual board retreats are where the deep, strategic work gets done.

There’s so much work that boards need to get done. And there’s simply not enough time to do it.

Consider this: your regular board meetings shouldn’t last longer than two hours. That includes committees reporting out on their work, the CEO reporting out on key topics, and the board discussing and voting on any key decisions.

If you’re ever going to have the time for the strategic planning the organization is looking to its board to contribute, let alone your internal planning to improve as a board, you have to set time aside every year to reflect at a retreat.

Annual board retreats help you make the most strategic use of your trustees’ limited time.

You could try to have three-hour meetings each month, or longer. But you’ll likely end up really struggling with engagement and recruiting.

Rather than having three-hour meetings every month, hold two-hour meetings that make the most of every minute. And, one weekend every year, spend eight hours doing the deep strategic work that you didn’t have the time or bandwidth for at regular meetings.

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Successful charter boards do a retreat in the summer.

You have these months over the summer where people can reflect and plan. You don’t have the constant churn of activities and deadlines that you manage during the school year. There are no test scores that are coming out; there are {most likely} no school or organizational crises to manage.

So this is the time to do your internal board planning. It is the perfect time to plan, do all the kind of stuff that you don’t have the time to do during the rest of the year.

Over the summer, people’s schedules tend to be cleared up so this is the typical time to run a retreat. However, if the winter works best for you, just make sure you have one!

Who should attend your board retreat?

If you’re going to have votes taken to, for example, elect officers, you’re going to need a quorum at a minimum because it’s going to be a public meeting.

Your CEO, school leader, executive director or the person that works directly with the board, they will need to be present.

Next up, review your agenda to access who else you’ll need in attendance. Maybe the senior members and C-Suite people? Staff members?

If your agenda includes talking about culture, talking about what’s working and what’s not it may not be appropriate to have staff members there for those kinds of conversations.

Instead, if you’re spending a lot of time talking about things like organizational priorities, your staff should be present as well as your CAO.

Where should we hold our board retreat this year?

This will vary based on the charter board. Do you want to have this onsite or offsite?

Some retreats occur at you standard conference room, where you typically meet. This may work for some, especially large groups.

The other option is to meet offsite to get want from the typical environment and away from the monotony of the regular course of meetings. A local hotel or even a destination hotel area may be a great fit, depending on budget.

We recommend you ask your board members for help in finding a creative space to do the retreat. I’m going rolling right into this question.

How much time do we need to plan for our retreat?

There’s no standard amount of time for board retreats.

You want to give yourself a sizable amount of time. It needs to be substantially longer than a traditional board meeting. At a minimum, a retreat is normally a half-day to a full day, meaning, four to eight hours.

You might even spread out across two days. Quite large organizations, like major colleges and universities, will often do a two-day retreat. Trustees might go stay in a hotel the night before, do a dinner together, and then the next morning meet all day at that hotel.

That’s really nice because you get to accomplish that whole unstructured agenda, free time the night before, and then the day of is really left to the planning.

Or, you might do two nights, back to back. So, for the school committee that I served, we did hours during the week. We would do from 3pm to 8pm, two nights in a row. We used the whole first night and just some of the second night.

How much should our retreat cost?

Be cautious of the expense. The expense of having everyone to a nice restaurant the night before a stay in a hotel room is a lot more than, say, having a really nice catered lunch or catered dinner in your meeting.  

That said, your budget depends on the scale of things. You can have a board retreat that’s free if you don’t supply any food and things like that. Or, if you get food donated, it could also scale up to something more complex like with restaurants and hotels and travel expenses, etc.

Should I bring in an outside facilitator?

If you’re working with a facilitator like BoardOnTrack, then you do have expert help putting together your agenda. This can be a major help in efficiency and time management.

Bringing in an outside facilitator can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000. The consultants’ fees normally include travel expenses, as well as services rendered.  

If your agenda is really heavy on tough discussions… If you have a real toxic board culture, you might need to bring in an outside expert to facilitate those hard conversations. You might just know that, without the right external guidance, your retreat could go off the rails.

The really hard conversations can often be best facilitated by a disinterested facilitator. Because, within your governance team, there is no disinterested party — everyone’s invested.

In addition, if you’re seeking to do deep strategic planning, having somebody who can facilitate a strategic planning exercise about goal setting and things like that, following proven processes and systems, allows the CEO and the board chair all of the participants to be true participants.

You want to bring in a facilitator if you need the expertise and or in areas where you need everybody to be a full participant. If you need the CEO to not be taking notes and not thinking about where to go next and not brainstorming how to run the meeting, but can actually be there.

For some boards, having a facilitator is the right fit, others will keep it in house.

What do I need to do to prepare?

If you’re a BoardOnTrack member, what you should be doing is getting all of the data and tools completed in the system.

You’ll need the CEO’s evaluation to be complete to talk about goal setting. In this case, one of the things you want to do is make sure that everybody completes the CEO evaluation prior to the retreat.

If you’re going to have a conversation about setting board goals and reacting, changing where the board’s direction needs to be, where they need to develop, you’re going to need to have all assessments completed.

Based on your agenda, you’ll have specific details and tasks needed to host a successful retreat.

However, in order to prepare for a board retreat, the first thing is you need to get everybody on board with the notion of having one.

The CEO & Board Chair both need to be present and on board. It’s also great to get the full buy-in of the board.

Too many boards don’t do this, but it doesn’t hurt to get the full board to vote on doing a retreat. It validates, that this is something everyone on the team is committed to doing.

How do I know my board retreat was successful?

The question here really is: How do we make it actionable? Your retreat’s success might be measured more on your post-retreat action plan than on what happened during the retreat. You want a detailed plan for turning your discussions and decisions into action.

An unproductive board retreat would be one in which everybody shows up, yopup talk, debate and leave with a plan but then there is no follow-up.

No action, no next steps, no results.

Successful, productive retreats, are the ones where, regardless of what the topics or intended purpose of the retreat, you leave with a plan and act on it.  

Sometimes, the actual goal-setting does not actually take place at the retreat level but afterwards.

At the retreat, you might discuss whether or not you’re going to expand into another middle school, to chip away at your wait list.

You might come out of that conversation aligned on with the answer being, “Yes, we’re fully committed to this and we want it to happen within the next five years.”

Then, the action steps leaving the retreat would be that each committee will go back and set their own SMART goals for helping to reach that organizational-level goal.

Is our retreat subject to open meeting laws?

Some of your retreat may be and other parts may not. It depends on your agenda.

Part of the agenda might be a posted open public meeting of the board, where you actually might vote on official board business.

There may also be a closed session for your trustees’ learning and professional development, not actually doing any official business.

Whether you host your retreat on site or in a secluded villa over a long weekend, whether you include staff or don’t, board retreats are an essential step in achieving your highest bar. Lean on BoardOnTrack to help you prepare and get the most out of your next retreat!

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