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Mike Burns

About Mike

Reframing the Board Retreat: Advance!

No doubt about it, board meetings are fine. Board members deal with immediate issues that need action. They monitor the finances. They get a picture of how well the work of the organization is going. They catch-up on the status of the board, such as changes, challenges and the work of committees.

But with all this business, when do they get the time to really get to know their fellow board members better? When do they get to think and talk about why their organization exists and about the organization’s future—what it could look like and what it could be doing three to five years from now? How often do they get to take time out and reflect on how much the organization has really accomplished and how far it has to go to achieve its mission and vision and if it’s even doing the best stuff?

Then someone suggests a board retreat. Problem is, not many board members get excited when contemplating a board retreat.

I understand. Even as a consultant who facilitates such retreats, it is with mixed feelings that I sign-on to these events. My first set of thoughts is about the board members who have set really high expectations, thinking that this event will provide lots of learning and stimulate new life and excitement for the board. My second set of thoughts is about the members who dread these “touchy-feely” events, recalling their experience that nothing much comes from these exercises; that they take-up time which could be better spent doing other things; and that, if they really wanted a warm, fuzzy relationship with a bunch of people, they might have and likely do have better venues for that.

But despite these doubts, I know from experience that a board retreat can provide the time to accomplish what can rarely be accomplished at board meetings.

A retreat can provide the foundation for at least three results for board members:

  1. Gaining new insights about fellow board members and staff, particularly about their experience, knowledge and values. Increased information about members results in increased trust. Trust is a foundation for sound group decision-making.
  2. A deeper understanding of the background, history and theory of change of the organization and its programs.
  3. An understanding of what’s possible for the organization’s future and what they need to do to help get the organization there.

How about a Board Advance?

With all these outcomes and the traditional poo-pooing of board retreats, let’s reframe the occasion by changing what it’s called. Instead of a board retreat, what about a board advance? Board retreats are never really intended to help boards run the other way. They are about the future, so what better framing than by labeling the exercise a board advance?

And, instead of focusing on exercises of a warm-fuzzy nature around getting-to-know-you-but-so-what, how about focusing on understanding the organization’s theory of change?

Theory of Change

The theory of change asks three questions:

  1. Who does the organization care about, and why?
  2. What is the organization’s intervention? By “intervention,” we mean the strategy an organization will take to address its focus or concerns; and
  3. What should the results be from a successful intervention?

A theory-of-change conversation can create a “safe space” to provide members time for intimate sharing of their fundamental beliefs. This is also the perfect opportunity for members beginning a strategic plan; in particular, reviewing history, mission, results and checking-in with values to map the organization’s future.

To learn more about the theory of change, see

As an alternative to a theory-of-change conversation, a board advance can provide time for addressing a more immediate challenge, such as an unplanned departure of the executive, dealing with unanticipated issues such as a loss of funding, or a sudden increase in demand for services. Again, the focus is on current challenges but solving them in a forward-looking way.

Some tips for a successful board advance include:

  • Decide on the session’s results and an agenda ahead of the session, perhaps using a special planning committee.
  • Schedule your session for four to six hours—overnights can be fun but they are not for everyone, particularly when you consider the competing demands of today’s time and attention-challenged board members. Saturdays or Sundays work for some members who work during regular business hours (hopefully the day will be rainy). Other members find a late business-day session beginning at 4 p.m. possible—this time still offers six hours to meet.
  • Meet off-site—a different meeting space such as a board member’s office or home can help everyone “think out of the box” and “lighten-up” or emphasize the “time-out” nature of the session.
  • Have food catered that reflects all the dietary needs of members so as not to burden board members or staff.
  • To ensure that considerations are fully informed and that the outcomes of the advance are embraced by those who may be affected, invite senior, and maybe all, staff but make sure members agree on what role staff can play.
  • Consider hiring an experienced facilitator—an objective individual who understands group process and how boards work.
  • Plan to bring agreements reached at the advance back to a board meeting for action. The pressure of formal decision-making will reduce the less-tangible benefits the advance can provide.
  • Assign participants as “partners” to ensure that those who were unable to attend the session have some awareness of what happened. A facilitator’s notes can be helpful with this effort.

Take advantage of the unique opportunity a longer meeting among board members can offer. It is an effective strategy to advance board relationships, teamwork, performance and most important, results.  And while I may be occasionally less-than-enthusiastic to take-on a board retreat, I am always enthusiastic to support a board advance.


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