Productive, enjoyable nonprofit strategic planning retreats take preparation. Fortunately, the preparation itself is so chock-full of win-win goodness that each bite won’t seem elephantine at all.

  1. Get clear on what you want. Why are you planning? What will planning make possible? What does success look like?
  2. Bake in execution and accountability from the very start. We’ve all seen plans that serve as dust bunny breeding grounds. (They replicate like … rabbits!) Here’s an outcome statement you can use that puts execution and accountability front and center: “I need a document the board can use to hold me accountable, that I can use to hold the leadership team accountable, and the leadership team can use to hold the line staff accountable.”
  3. Get aligned with your board chair. Involve your board chair from the earliest stages to ensure her/his and the board’s highest levels of engagement and strategic thinking, and to avoid process choices the board won’t like. Double win: This makes a fantastic relationship-building exercise. See the board chair conversation starters in my book Better Together: The Companion Workbook for more on this.
  4. Decide whom to involve in the strategy team. It’s almost always the full board. Involving the leadership team as well can be a powerful way to build the organization’s team culture and to get additional return on intelligence: The value that comes from bringing diverse minds together in one room and facilitating conversations that create a collective intelligence that’s more than the sum of the parts.
  5. Assess prospective strategy team’s strategic thinking talents. So you know in advance who will take the 30,000-foot view and who will be down in the weeds. (Both views are valuable, when you design a process that accommodates both styles.)
  6. Select a project champion. The project champion is more than a project manager—she/he is the cheerleader as well. The champion is wildly enthusiastic about what great strategic planning can do for the organization and the mission, and inspires enthusiasm in others. Nonprofit executives often select themselves by default, but they do well to consider assigning instead a rising star in the organization for whom championing the planning effort is a huge—and free!—professional development opportunity. There’s a succession planning win here, too: Say this person is your deputy and identified as your internal succession candidate. Imagine the opportunities for her/him to earn the board’s confidence by working with members directly on such a critical project!
  7. Identify board and staff members with planning pet peeves and work to accommodate them. People have had awful experiences with strategic planning. One or more of them is on your leadership team and/or board. To engage them and get a return on their intelligence, you’ll first need to make accommodations that give them reassurance this planning experience will be productive and enjoyable.
  8. Select strategic questions for the strategic planning preparation packet. The best planning processes get the strategic conversation started well in advance of the planning retreat itself. You do this by sending three to five powerful strategic questions to the strategy team and requiring they respond well in advance, by email or via telephone interviews with your facilitator.
  9. Review strategic question responses. You are looking for areas of agreement and disagreement that point to one or two critical strategic questions that must be answered in person at the meeting. Optionally, your facilitator can complete this step and add her/his own synthesis of the themes she/he sees.
  10. Optional: Compile responses into a briefing document. Send the briefing document to the strategic planning team for their review, so people get a sense of the range of starting thoughts on the strategic questions. To add additional awesomeness (because all advocates adore alliteration), you can ask briefing document reviewers to write their own one or two critical strategic questions that must be addressed at the planning retreat. (That way, you engage even more people in setting the agenda, which helps secure their buy-in.)
  11. Design planning retreat agenda to answer the critical strategic question(s). The most critical element is giving everyone a full and fair chance to participate. Facilitators nearly always accomplish this best by designing small-group discussions that then feed into large-group discussions. Say you’ve got a 16-member board; the people in four small groups are going to each get way more air time than they would competing for air time with 15 other people.
  12. Communicate the almost-final agenda. Respond to questions, ideas, concerns, and make mid-course corrections, if necessary.
  13. Set the retreat dates and location. Wow, shouldn’t we have done this back at Step 1? Ideally, no. You want to know what you need to accomplishbefore you decide how long a retreat you’ll allocate to accomplish it, and what environment best lends itself to accomplishing those goals. (Hint: Sometimes it’s a retreat center, sometimes it’s at your client service site(s), and sometimes it’s a train. Yes, the kind with a locomotive.)
  14. Delegate catering decisions and a generous budget to the foodie(s) on your team. Well-fed and highly caffeinated strategy team members are happy and productive members. Find the people who are passionate about food and drink and give them ample funds to purchase the same for the retreat. Do not, I repeat, do not allow weak coffee to even cross the threshold of your retreat site. (Hint: If you can see the bottom of your coffee mug when it’s full of “coffee,” you’re doing it wrong.)
  15. Work closely with a process expert to design the retreat. You’re asking your board members and leadership team to take one, two, or more days away from their jobs and families. And, as if that were not enough, you’re—you know—setting the strategy for your organization! Find someone who’s amiably anal-retentive about process design, and listen to her/him. Importantly, listen, don’t abdicate. You make the final decisions, because you know your board and leadership team best.
  16. Retreat! Repeat this outcome statement at the beginning, middle, and end: “I need a document the board can use to hold me accountable, that I can use to hold the leadership team accountable, and the leadership team can use to hold the line staff accountable.”
  17. Execute accountably. The best way to prevent those dust bunnies from breeding? Pick up the plan daily, execute it, and stay accountable for creating results that matter to the people you serve. (There’s a whole separate “Execute accountably” checklist—check it out.)