News and Information about the nonprofit sector in Massachusetts. Check back frequently to keep informed.
January 20, 2022
Transforming a Face-to-Face Retreat into a Virtual Advance
By Jay W. Vogt

Jay Vogt-2020
Jay Vogt

Many nonprofit leaders have felt the need to revise their strategic plan or hold a team retreat in light of the coronavirus pandemic, but are postponing this critical work because face-to-face events are off limits for now and people get Zoom fatigue. However, that's not good enough.

What if we never quite get to the “other side” of the pandemic? What if social distancing is the “new normal?” If so, we’ll need a new way forward. Fortunately, one exists.

First, we have to deconstruct the face-to-face retreat and put it back together again as a virtual advance. We do that by focusing on a few key points.

Focus on Outcomes

Any well-facilitated meeting, or process, starts with the end in mind. Most face-to-face retreats have two desired outcomes: one about the product, and one about the process. The product outcome is a set of collective work products, deliverables, or decisions arising out of collaboration. The process outcome is an experience of building team, arising out of that same collaboration.

Focus on Process

Any well-facilitated meeting, or process, has an underlying structure that is designed to deliver outcomes.

Generating ideas is about expansion and possibility. Evaluating ideas is about contraction and closure. A final decision sets up the next challenge, and then the cycle repeats. Expansion, contraction…diverging, converging…it’s like breathing. In fact, it’s what invisibly gives life to great meetings.

Focus on Virtual Support Tools

The use of many virtual collaboration support tools has become commonplace:

  • Video conferencing through Zoom, or something like it
  • Collaborative work on documents through Google Docs, or something like it
  • Collaborative work on images with Google Slides, or something like it.
  • Saves travel time and costs
  • Avoids health hazards of face-to-face contact
  • Allows asynchronous contribution
  • Allows honest, anonymous input
  • Engages stakeholders beyond the team, as warranted, with ease

They’re great at supporting collaboration. But they're weak at supporting collaborative decision-making. Zoom fatigue sets in all too quickly.

Fortunately, new collaborative platforms are emerging that understand the science of decision-making. One such tool is In one of its “decision spaces,” for example, one can “noodle” to brainstorm ideas (while diverging), and (while converging) “tag” (to sort ideas), “vote,” “rate,” and “prioritize” them. This work can be done asynchronously and anonymously.

Focus on Virtual Process

How might one deconstruct a face-to-face retreat and put it back together again as a virtual advance? Let’s say that you wanted to gather your senior team to identify growth opportunities, pick the top three, and create an action plan for each.

Your one-day retreat might have four segments: A first on trends to set the context; a second on opportunities to frame the possibilities; a third on evaluating those opportunities, leading to a choice of three; and a final one where you break out into three groups, organized by opportunity, and create action plans for each, all while building your team.

A virtual advance achieving those same outcomes will be a mix of team times (one hour maximum to avoid Zoom fatigue) and solo times (self-paced over a day or more between team times). You might start with an opening video session to orient the team, followed by solo online time to generate and rate trends, followed by a team video discussion session; then another solo online session to generate and rate opportunities, followed by another team discussion (and decision) session; followed by three solo online sessions, in parallel, one for each opportunity, with reports, followed by a final closing team video meeting.

During these solo online sessions, additional stakeholders may be invited to participate, since the technology accommodates larger numbers, thus engaging more diverse voices. Designed this way, a one-day face-to-face retreat becomes a one-week virtual advance, leaving the team aligned and racing forward toward growth.

Think of a complete strategic planning process as just an extended version of the above.

Focus on Benefits

Some will argue that a virtual advance works better than a face-to-face retreat because it:

Others will insist that nothing can ever replace the intangible benefits of face-to-face work. But it’s the wrong comparison. Don’t compare a virtual advance with a face-to-face retreat. Compare it with no retreat or planning at all. It’s wildly better than that. Thinking of doing without your face-to-face retreat? Schedule your virtual advance instead.

Jay W Vogt is the founder of Peoplesworth and EssentialWorth. His TEDx talk on has over 100,000 views. Email him at

June 2020

SUBSCRIBE FREE – Keep current with the Wednesday Report emailed to you free each week. Click here.
Got news, advice, resources? Send it to