Everything You Wanted to Know About Board Offsites but Were Afraid to Ask.

By missioncontrol | 0 comments

Have you ever wondered whether it might be smart for you to have a Board offsite? How do you know if you’re ready? What separates a good offsite from a disaster? What are the must-do’s and what should you avoid?



It’s important first to think about why you might want one. Board meetings can serve multiple purposes (often simultaneously). They can be used to:

  • Foster connections amongst board members; and between board members and staff
  • Deepen the board’s understanding and commitment to the mission of the organization
  • To plan — for strategy, board recruitment and/or fundraising efforts

Then, think about your timing. When did you last have one? If the answer is never—then yes, I highly recommend you have a meeting. In my observation, boards who have never had an offsite tend to be less-cohesive, less across the detail of the organization and often, less effective as a result.

If the answer is less than a year ago, then, it may make a bit more sense to work out whether an offsite is the right format. There’s a fine balance to be struck with volunteer boards and you want to make sure you give them enough time to connect to the organization and each other without over-burdening them. I recommend no more than once a year if possible, but don’t wait more than three years without having one.


The best offsites share a few features.

1. They differ from your typical board meeting

A typical board meeting is often fairly rapid fire (getting through a packed agenda in a an hour and a half. They tend to be lighter on the discussion given the tight timing, They aren’t great opportunities to get into the detail, or really ask more general, background questions on the organization. They are more about approval and decision-making. So a good offsite sets up the opposite dynamic. They aren’t rushed. There is enough space and time to ask the “naïve” questions (the ones that often end up being the most critical questions anyone can ask). There is a chance to really engage in discussion and thought.

2. Offer plenty of chances for small-group dialogue

Second — they set up plenty of opportunity for small-group dialogue. It’s hard for 14 people to really talk to each other. Most of the richest discussions happen in smaller groups, and the best offsites move in and out of small group formation, allowing everyone a chance to ask questions, put forward their ideas and think (in whatever way they do best—quiet reflection or thinking out loud).

3. They have multiple objectives.

a) Feelings
The first step we use when sitting down to plan an offsite is to ask people what feelings you want people to leave with. This is an important, and often ignore step. If everyone leaves a meeting and you’ve made some decisions but people are feeling agitated, disconnected and frustrated — you haven’t been successful. Often — Executive Directors will tell me that they want their board to leave feeling energized, connected, committed, and clear on their next steps.

b) Decisions
Then you should look at what decision you need to make—these could include strategic decisions: what is our goal over the next 2 years? How will we measure success? What are our growth objectives? These can also include governance objectives — will we have a give/get policy? At what level? How many people do we want to recruit to our board, with what skill levels?

c) Actions
A plan is totally useless if nothing happens. The best meetings finish with each attendee making a firm commitment to an action the next day and the next week. You want to see a big uptick in fundraising, networking and support.


Before the meeting:

1. Connect with participants
Make sure you (or a facilitator) connects with all the attendees before the meeting. You can do a face to face conversation, a phone call or online survey. Ask your board what skills do they have? Which are being used? Who’s feeling over/under utilized? How well connected do they feel to the mission of the organizations.

2. Prepare and send around key facts.
Put together a short, powerful fact pack so you’re all on the same page. Address things like which clients you are working with today, what those clients want, what programs are working, who else is working in this space, and how you differ, and what they need to do know about the big issues in the broader environment that will impact your organization (government policy, funding etc.)

3. Plan that meeting!
Put together a detailed, but thoughtful and flexible agenda design. Look back at your meeting objectives. Will this meeting get you there?

During the meeting

1. Facilitation that frees you up
Don’t have the board chair or ED facilitate — bring someone in, a friend, and outsider, who can keep you to your agenda, challenge your thinking, help synthesize the conversation, break log-jams and keep you free to participate.

2. Stay flexible
You can’t be sure quite how long things will take. Give yourself enough wiggle room in the agenda to let an important conversation happen. If there’s a lot of heat and energy, take a break to loosen things up, but don’t shut down an important conversation because you’re worried about ‘sticking to the agenda’.

3. Have fun
Create space for people to get to know each other and enjoy each other’s company. You don’t have to invest in crazy team-building exercises, but at the least pair people up and have them ask each other some interesting questions. One of the most important things you can get out of an offsite are stronger relationships amongst the participants — make sure you create the space and environment for this to happen.

After the meeting

Make sure someone takes good notes (that everyone can see) during the meeting. Get people to own their commitments and make sure you follow up.


So that’s how to have a great meeting. The biggest mistake I see most ED’s make is that they don’t ask their board to have an offsite, they assume that people are busy and don’t want to come. Yet I hear time and time again from boards — I wish we had done that sooner. Some Boards ask to have one every year.

Good luck! Get planning, get talking and get out there and change the world.

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