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January 20, 2022
How to Plan a Successful Retreat
By Ora Grodsky and Jeremy Phillips

Jeremy Phillips + Ora Grodsky
Jeremy Phillips and Ora Grodsky
Retreats can generate momentum and good will, moving the mission and work of nonprofit organizations forward in powerful ways, but a successful retreat requires more than a meaningful purpose. It also takes thoughtful planning.

The following should help.

Who Should Plan?

We encourage our clients to form retreat planning teams to help clarify the retreat’s purpose and develop its agenda. Engaging multiple perspectives enhances the content and process of the retreat, ensuring that it truly meets the needs of participants and the organization.

The work of the planning team should be guided by these questions:
  • What is the purpose of the retreat? How will the retreat move our work forward?
  • If our time at the retreat is really successful, where will be and what will we know at the end?
  • What things (processes, activities, locations) will make our retreat really successful?
  • What do we need to do to prepare for the retreat?
Planning teams also build ownership, generating a body of individuals who support the retreat and feel responsible for its success. This is especially important for organizations with low trust.

Who Should Come?

We believe in inclusiveness. Retreats are designed to bring out the best thinking of the group, so you want the best group possible! Think about who would add value to the conversation, as well as who would gain value from being there.

At the same time, extraneous participants benefit no one. If people don’t have a vested interest, don’t have wisdom to contribute, and there is no need to build their buy-in, it may not be useful for them to attend the retreat.

How Long Should Your Retreat Last?

Several factors go into deciding on the length of a retreat:
  • Most importantly, what do you hope or need to accomplish? The timing of a retreat should be commensurate with the time required to achieve its goals.
  • How much time can people spare?
  • Where will the retreat be held? If participants are traveling a long way to get there, the retreat should be worth the time, expense and carbon footprint. However, don’t extend the retreat unnecessarily just because people have traveled far.
Where Should You Have Your Retreat?

The location of a retreat can help determine its success. Here are some important considerations:
  • Off-site is better. Much better. Getting out of your typical environment helps you escape daily work and the temptation to “just get a little work done.” Be careful, however, that travel, expense, and being away from home do not create new burdens for participants.
  • When appropriate, stay overnight. Something magical happens when people have the chance to sleep on their work, wake up, and continue working together. If you do stay overnight, make sure you have appropriate accommodations.
  • Find a location that feels special and out of the ordinary. A good retreat space has room to move around, comfortable seating, and windows. Good food is also a big plus.
  • Make sure you know your budget before you start considering locations.
How Should You Prepare Participants?

Everyone should come to a retreat with an understanding of its purpose and agenda. Expectations should be clear and shared. If people come to the retreat wanting to have conversations that are not part of the agenda, frustration can build and the retreat can fall apart. This can be minimized if you communicate effectively with participants beforehand. If appropriate, poll participants as part of developing the agenda to hear their hopes and expectations.

Send out relevant information—including the agenda—well in advance. Don’t send out so much information that people feel overwhelmed before the retreat even begins. Do send exactly what they will need so they are inspired and excited to begin the work.

Who Will Do What?

Clarify retreat roles in advance. Questions to consider include:
  • Should you use an outside or internal facilitator(s)?
  • Who will handle logistics?
  • Will different people lead activities? Which activities? Who?
The decision-making responsibilities of the retreat body should be clarified in advance. Are they making decisions or recommendations? Will decisions be made by consensus or majority? In our experience, well-facilitated groups can almost always achieve full agreement, but decision-making procedures should be established and clear.

How Can You Prepare for After the Retreat?

A retreat should have a tangible and significant impact on your work. Preparing for follow-up before the retreat even begins makes this more likely. If you know what steps you will need to take, set up structures ahead of time to ensure that your good thinking translate into concrete results once you are back at work. If you don’t know what will be required, build planning time into the agenda so you can develop your next steps together. Without careful attention to what happens next, a seemingly successful retreat may end up, in hindsight, looking much less so.

Excerpted from The Why, When, and How of Organizational Retreats . Ora Grodsky and Jeremy Phillips provide training and organizational development services to organizations working for social justice.
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