Strengths Coaching Blog

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Building a Strengths-Based nonprofit Board: The Board Retreat


by Casandra Fritzche

Roughly a decade ago, I attended my first nonprofit board retreat. Instantly, I was struck by the contradiction that something that ultimately creates so much comfort and good in the world could also cause so much pain. There had to be a better way, and a focus on strengths was the answer.

For those of you unfamiliar with this time-honored tradition, a board retreat is usually some sort of strategic planning lock-in, typically featuring the board of directors and executive leadership. Sometimes it takes two hours, other times it takes a weekend. My first event lasted 10 excruciating hours, sprinkled with mini-sub sandwiches and lukewarm coffee by the gallon. The retreat kicked off immediately upon entering the classroom, as introductions and greetings were a luxury time could not afford. After plowing through agenda items and creating a list of next steps, the dreaded sign-up sheet was distributed. With visible hesitation, each board member copied their name next to planning committees, fundraising events and community initiatives. Did every board member sign up to volunteer? Yes. Did every board member want to? No. The discomfort was palpable.


Taken at face-value, this retreat was successful. We set action items and everyone went home with a to-do list. No one, however, went home with momentum. Three months later, the strategic plan we had worked so hard to create was still just that -- a plan. As a nonprofit board leader or an executive director, your primary goal should be instilling a sense of ownership. You want your board members to own their cause, their mission, and you likely have precious few chances to do this with all the players together in a room. With that thought in mind, how can nonprofit leaders turn a lackluster board retreat (like mine) into a truly engaging and thought-provoking planning session? By aligning board members’ natural talents with their strategic plan using the Clifton StrengthsFinder. That's how.


The philosophy behind strengths-based development charges that people are most successful when acting on their strengths. As a board leader, truly knowing and understanding the natural talents of your team is a rarity. More likely, you learn what they’re willing to do and what hours they can contribute. When your team only meets a handful of times each year, exchanges quickly become transactional rather than personal.

Using your retreat to build your strengths-based nonprofit board allows you the opportunity to dig deeper, to know your board members on a different level. Adding more to the already packed agenda may seem like a challenge. But let’s consider a few must-haves that promise a return on the investment. 

Recognition and Investment: The motivations for joining a nonprofit board are varied. For some its status, for others it’s about relationships or resume building. And, let’s be honest, some board members are “volun-told” by their companies. Regardless of motivations, they joined your board. Now you need to find ways to engage and retain them. At around $15 per person, the Clifton StrengthsFinder is worth its weight in sub sandwiches and donuts. Consider the assessment and subsequent debrief to be a way to recognize your members. Kick off your work with strengths as a way to say “thank you.” This investment in each member gives you further ability to recognize their unique abilities, setting your board apart from the rest.

Icebreaking -- Start With Strengths: Carving out time to discuss the strengths of your board can ignite natural conversation in a way most icebreakers or team builders can’t touch. After all, what successful leader doesn’t enjoy the occasional reflective moment in the spotlight? Asking your team about the positive attributes that have led to a path of success turns casual small talk into productive conversations. In a conventional icebreaker, you may discover one of your colleagues had horses as a child. But in a strengths-based icebreaker, you may hear how the theme of Ideation has contributed to a successful project at work. This new insight allows you to better set your team up for success.


Relationship Shortcuts -- What Might Members Truly Do Best?: As a board leader, you seize any opportunity to gain insight into your team. Does David really want to organize the annual team meeting? Does Anna actually enjoy fundraising? Your retreat may be the only time to openly ask these questions. The funny thing about nonprofits is the overwhelming urge to contribute to an underlying mission and purpose. This notion of contribution can lead to an attitude of self-sacrifice. So many board members aren’t doing a task because they like it, or even because they’re good at it. They’re doing it because you asked. When these mini-acts of martyrdom go unnoticed, your board member may grow exhausted and frustrated. Take time to understand the Clifton StrengthsFinder report of each of your members. Look for answers to the question, “what sort of work would this person enjoy most?” You will open the door to deeper, more meaningful conversations. When you understand who your board members naturally are, you’re more likely to understand a natural fit within your team.


Looking back on my first board retreat and countless subsequent retreats, the idea of building in a strengths component seems such a natural fit. In the world of nonprofits, your board is often composed of your most vocal and visible volunteers. Any opportunity to align board members’ natural abilities with their roles and responsibilities is key to building long-term success and engagement.

Casandra is a Learning and Development Consultant based out of Chicago, Illinois. Before joining Gallup, Casandra worked in strategy and planning with domestic and international nonprofit organizations. Casandra also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, West Africa.

Casandra’s top five strengths are: Input, Positivity, Futuristic, Strategic and Learner.

2 comments :

CA Puttin' said...

Great article for nonprofits teams.

kbutler said...

Thanks for the post here! Before reading this I did just as suggested here and it was a very engaging meeting. We sent copies of SF2.0 to the Board and staff for a more complete look at the team. Listed everyone on a spreadsheet with their strengths, this provided insights to our concentrations of strengths and lead to good discussions about recruiting new Board members. While we came away with a better understanding of the team, we didn't leave enough time to really get into strategies. I want to keep SF relevant through the year and looking for ways to bring it into each quarterly meeting.

Search This Blog for Coaching Topics