Board Retreats Done Right

board retreat

Have you ever gone to a board retreat?

Close your eyes for a moment and think back to the last one you attended.

Maybe it was last year, maybe a few years back. Try to remember the basic contours of the agenda. Or better still, something that changed as a result.


Get in line. Here are some things board members have told me about their most recent board retreats:

“It was fine.” 

“I wonder if we ever did anything with the flip chart stuff and the action items.”

“I remember we had a really great strategic visioning conversation, though I’m struggling to remember the details and I have no idea if anything actually came of it.”

You’ve invested all this time and money. Your board members gave up a Friday night and full day on Saturday. And yet, just months later, they can barely even remember the agenda, much less any outcomes.

Wow. This is NOT OK!

Look, here’s the truth. Most board retreats really are just fine. They’re not disasters. If they were, board members would actually remember a whole lot more about them!

Really, though, most board retreats are wildly mediocre.

But we can do a lot better.

We can create board retreats that are valuable, memorable, and actionable.

That leave board members with a sense of camaraderie, pride about the work, and an urgency to be great ambassadors.

Today, I offer some practical advice and a downloadable agenda for a retreat that does exactly that.

==> Download the sample five-star board retreat agenda

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The Case of the Board Member Hunt

Transcript below:

Hi. Joan Garry here, answering questions that board and staff members at nonprofits ask me, quite literally, all the time. I get emails. I can’t answer them all. I’m hoping that maybe in these Q and A, I stumble upon the question you yourself might have. Trust me, if you’ve got it, so do many others. I treat these a little bit like cases, like I’m one of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew or something, so this one, we call The Case of the Board Member Hunt.

Of all the questions I am asked, I believe this must be the most common: help me find board members. Actually, that’s not a question. That’s a statement. Can you help me find board members? Here are three good tips. Number one, stop asking the question so generally. Can you help me find board members? That means that you go to a board meeting, and you say, “Hey, does anyone know of someone who would be a good board member?” That is a paralyzing question. In general, if you ask that question that abstractly, you will paralyze board members, who will think only that you want people who are rich or know others who are. Trust me, that’s not what you’re looking for. Think about this like you’re directing a play. You can’t walk into a room and say, “I’m directing a play, and I need some actors.” You have to be specific about the kinds of roles you’re looking for the actors to play.

Number two, make intentional time for either as a full board, or as a subset of the board, to sit and think about only this: what would the ideal board of our organization look like? What skills, experience, expertise, competencies, attributes would the ideal board have? Figure out which of those you have, based on your current board, and then make a list of the gaps. It is those gaps that then become the roles that you will cast for. You can then begin to say, “We really need someone who knows something about strategic planning.” Maybe you can go to a large strategic planning firm in your city and ask one of the minority affinity groups to help you find a board member who’s a junior planner who would be just right for a small board. Once you know what role you’re casting for, there’s all different places you can look for those folks, and different ways you can look for people who bring different things to the table and diversity in its broadest definition.

Number three is engage your board in discussions outside of the board room, to reshape how other people see board service. I think that there are a skajillion people that oughta be on boards, a skajillion people who think they are ill-qualified because their neither rich, nor do they think they know rich people. They don’t understand what board service is, the privilege it is, what it feels like to be part of a board, and that it’s about inviting people of all sorts to know more and do more. One thing leads to another, that leads to another, and you’re building an army, and sometimes members of that army even have money.

Stop asking the question generally. Make intentional time to sit down and think about what gaps in skills, expertise, competencies, and attributes are, where are your gaps? Then start casting for those roles.

The third is be part of the solution. People don’t choose to be on boards, not always because they don’t have time. It’s because they don’t understand what an incredible joy and privilege it can be, and they think they have to be rich or know someone who is. All they need to do is be in love with your organization and be an ambassador to talk about the work of the organization to as many people as possible. It’s that simple.
We answer a lot of questions in our Facebook group at Thriving Nonprofits with Joan Garry. Head on over there and join the 11,000 folks who are there, and learn from and support each other there. You’ll find a weekly blog post from me that usually has practical and actionable advice, and a story or two that might make you laugh, and it might provide you with a kick in the pants and a shot in the arm. You can find that at joangarry, with two Rs, .com. See ya next time

The Case of the Very Bad Event Speech

Transcript below:

So Joan Garry here with another question that comes up quite often from board and staff leaders of nonprofit organizations.

This one, and I like to think of them as cases, is the case of the very bad event speech.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? You’re sitting there, you love the organization actually, and you even had a glass of wine, so you’re predisposed, and the executive director gets up to start to talk. And she talks. And she talks. And then all of a sudden you start to see a lot of people heading back towards the open bar, and she’s still talking.

And in fact the speech is clear and passionate, but it goes on forever. You sort of lose the central point and it really slows down the pace of the event.

So I’m gonna offer you five steps in creating an event speech that I think should help you.

I’d begin with the most important one. People speak an average of 135 words per minute. Don’t ask me why I know that, I just do. I talk a little faster actually. So if you want a six-minute speech, and I think that’s exactly what you want, six to eight minutes, multiply six times 135 and that’s the number of words you should write for. It’s like a good sized blog post and that’s it. That’s the first one, is keep it tight and short. Leave them wanting more. Six, seven minutes maybe, 135 words a minute.

Number two, do not open your speech with thank you’s. Nothing will send people to the bar faster than that. I’d like to thank my board share, my board members, staff members, will you all please stand up? I’m already standing up and I’m heading to just check out my pal over at table number 16. Leave the thank you’s to someone else, the person who introduces you perhaps. Somebody else should do the thank you’s.

All right, that’s number two. So time, no thank you’s, here’s number three. How did you get involved? Bring the story to a personal note. I began as a kitchen volunteer here at project angel food back in 1986, and the people I sliced and diced with are my friends to this very day. You get it.

Number four, one fantastic story about the work. Don’t give me ten, don’t give me 12, don’t give me six, because I’m only gonna remember one, so just one, and make it count. Give it to me like I’m ten years old so I don’t miss it.

Number five, what are you up against? What’s the threat? What’s the problem you’re trying to solve? Don’t assume people know, and definitely don’t assume that people don’t understand the scope and magnitude of that problem.

And then my bonus is that every speech should call people to action in some way. Sometimes you’re asking for money. Sometimes you’re asking them to do more, to get engaged in different ways. But if you fire somebody up, don’t miss the opportunity to invite them to do more.

And that’s what a good speech should look like. See you next time.

The Case of the Disengaged Board

Hi, I’m Joan Garry, and I’m here answering questions that board and staff leaders of nonprofits ask me, everything from occasionally to all the time.

Here’s a big one. I think of these as kind of like cases, like I’m Nancy Drew. Today we tackle the case of the disengaged board.

Are you hungry for a board that’s more engaged? I bet you are. So here’s three practical ideas and a bonus suggestion. Whether you’re the frustrated Board Chair that feels like you’re knocking and nobody’s home, or the frustrated Executive Director who feels like every request is met with crickets.

  1. Remember that no board is monolithic, so find your stars and bring them together in an alliance. Take your list of board members, divide them ones, twos, and threes. Your ones are your rock stars. Find one or two of them. It doesn’t take much. Bring them together, make them feel like a million bucks, and engage them in the process of working with you to tip the board in the direction you want to go.
  2. Make board meetings count. They are your best opportunity to create first-rate ambassadors. You want to do several things. You want to enrich them, something that gives them context about the sector or why the work matters. You want to engage them. Ask them legitimately and authentically for their advice, ideas, and suggestions.
  3. Keep them informed enough so that they can share accomplishments of the organization with the people they encounter. If you can enrich, inform, and engage you can ignite your board members to be engaged ambassadors for your work.
  4. Keep things alive between board meetings, and by this I do not mean nag them to sell tickets to the next event. You can nag them, but it has to be mixed up with some enrichment, a victory, a story they can tell, a mission moment some people call it. You’ve got to give them. You’ve got to feed them between board meetings if you want them at the next cocktail party to say, “Hey, you know, my job is great but boy am I loving board service. Let me tell you about something recently that happened at XYZ org.” That’s how it works.

Now, here’s the bonus. At your next board meeting try something.

Ask your Executive Director, maybe it’s an executive session with just the ED and the board, ask your Executive Director to offer his or her thinking about what he or she needs from the board in order to be successful.

Ask her to be specific and flip chart it, then turn the tables. Ask your board, “What does the board need from the Executive Director and the staff in order to be successful?” Flip chart that, too.

Take those two flip charts and make that the primary central focus of the next agenda for your ED, Board Chair check in.

How do those things come together in a way in which the ED gets what is needed from the board and the board gets what it needs to be successful, because you as copilots of this twin engine jet that is your nonprofit have to really make those engines work in sync. I think an exercise like that could be really, really valuable.

If this was helpful to you, join us in two places. One, on Facebook, Thriving Nonprofit with Joan Garry. Join us any time. There are almost 11,000 folks in there who find the conversation useful and valuable, and you can always subscribe to my blog, weekly pieces of advice just like this at

See you next time.

It’s Time to Step Up and Join a Board

Can I ask you to stop for just two minutes and think about something? I want you to consider joining a nonprofit board.

Nonprofits all across this country are desperate for people just like you.

I bet you’re deeply committed to a few key issues. Maybe you’re tired of looking at a playing field that isn’t level for everyone. Or maybe you’re so damn tired of the ugly world we live in you just want to be part of the solution. Maybe you just wanna get out of the stands and onto the field.

So consider joining a board.

My friend Joe will tell you that his board service was transformational. Here’s a guy who cared deeply about immigrant rights, couldn’t sit idly by, so he joined a board. He developed leadership skills, a group of kindred spirits, networking opportunities, and he felt like he was part of something bigger than himself. He felt valued and valuable, and he took some of that with him to his professional life, where he now holds a higher level leadership position.

Do you think you don’t have time to join a board? I didn’t think so either. But I made the time because I cared that much.

And do you think you have to be rich or know someone that’s right? Can I bust that myth right here and right now? No and no.

All you have to do is care enough to talk about the organization to people, to invite them to know more and to do more, and that doesn’t take money to do at all.

So do me a favor. If you know somebody who’d be an awesome board member, can you share this video?

And if you think it’s you, take a few minutes, do a little homework, and please, for yourself and for the organization you will serve, join a board. Please.

How Effective is Your Board? Here’s a Simple Test

simple board assessment

Dysfunctional boards would be comical if they weren’t scary.

Did I tell you the one about the board that needed to fire the Executive Director, but the ED had stacked the board with friends (because there was no formal recruitment process) and so the motion did not carry? And in the next two years, the endowment disappeared?

Or how about the board that approved an $8 million budget with just one probing question: “How much is a first class stamp these days?”

Then there was the board that met for nearly a year without a chair because no one wanted the responsibility.

Oh, and then there was the board that finally made a strategic decision to eliminate an ineffective program that cost too much money in order to ensure the sustainability of the nonprofit. And then after the meeting, more than half the board resigned and started a competitive organization to keep that program alive. All because of a charismatic founder.

I could go on but you get the idea.

Nearly every problem an organization has can be tied back to a dysfunctional board. But fortunately, there are clear signs of a dysfunctional board.

Want to know what they are?

==>  Download my simple board assessment

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How Nonprofits Should React to the New Tax Law

new tax law

Is the new tax law making you anxious? You’re not alone.

What will the impact be? This question is coming up everywhere we turn – emails from readers, conversations at nonprofit conference room tables, and certainly in our Nonprofit Leadership Lab. In the Lab, it’s been such a big topic, we’re working to bring in a tax expert to help us make sense of it all.

(Side note: if you’re curious about the Lab, which is designed to support leaders at smaller nonprofits, there’s a lot of information available here.)

Will our worst fears be realized and way fewer people will donate? Or simply donate less?

Some have argued that wealthy people will have more disposable income and actually donate more, offsetting other potential losses. It’s possible that some – even many – nonprofits will see an increase in revenues this year.

For now, we can only speculate. Time will tell.

But one thing I know to be true is this. It’s time to take a renewed look at how we approach fundraising. Any strategy that relied on the tax deduction is going to be a whole lot less likely to work.

So what should we do instead? Here’s a hint… think about New Year’s Eve.Continue Reading

The Roles and Responsibilities of the Board Chair and Executive Director


In most companies, there is a hierarchy of power. Typically, the CEO is at the top and it goes down from there.

Nonprofits are different. There are a lot of power centers. The board. The staff. Donors. Volunteers. Clients. Constituents. And on and on.

Yes, the board does have the ability to hire and fire the CEO or Executive Director. But the best run nonprofits run like a twin-engine jet with the ED and board chair acting as co-pilots. Leadership is shared.

But that doesn’t mean all decisions get made in tandem. There are certain things the ED must handle and other things that are the purview of the board chair.

Today, I’m going to break it all down for you:

  1. The responsibilities of the Executive Director
  2. The responsibilities of the board chair
  3. The grey area where the two need to work together

Here we go…Continue Reading

10 Truths Every Board Member Should Know

new board member

Let’s say you’ve just joined a nonprofit board. You’re flattered. You really love the work the organization does. You have a general sense of the role of a board member – something about ‘governance’ and yes, you probably heard the word “fundraising.”

But you’re also thinking to yourself: I bet I don’t know half of what being a new board member entails. Or even, what did I get myself into?

And now let’s say your organization has a harried Executive Director (this may be redundant) who really should have put together a strong board orientation but there just wasn’t time. And maybe the board members who recruited you soft-peddled fundraising or time commitment or all of the above.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Today I’d like to share a list of things I wish I could tell every new board member and every old board member.

But first I just want to say that if you do it well, it will be…

  • More work than you anticipated
  • More responsibility that you may have understood
  • A bit more frustrating that you considered

But most importantly, it will be a rewarding joy and privilege of the highest order.

So with no further ado here are the 10 things I think every new board member should know and understand.Continue Reading

How to Know When You Are Overdoing It

overdoing it

One of my early forays into therapy was in 1997 when I became the Executive Director of GLAAD. I remember my first day in my new therapist’s office, Therapy in Mission Valley and of course she asked, “Why are you here?” My answer came quickly. “I like to solve problems for people – I’m a helper – but I’ve gone overboard. Now I feel like I have to take care of all the gay people everywhere.” 

I bet many of you feel this way. Not necessarily about gay people. But about all the cats who haven’t been adopted, or the community center you know would benefit so many, or the marginalized groups you lobby for, or the communities of faith you support with your work.

It’s a lot of pressure. And as I have been known to say, a profound privilege.

I wish I had the antidote for the tremendous pressure and overwhelming responsibility.

I don’t. And I’m really sorry I don’t.

I know I have written posts and recorded podcasts about how to manage it but ok, I’ll say it. I am highly imperfect.

I pulled a fortune from a fortune cookie a few years back. I keep it with me. It kinda said it all. “The best advice to follow is the advice you give to others.”

My team will tell you I’m frequently overdoing it. I feel like so many people are counting on me. I remember thinking about all the gays and it would stress me out. Now staff and board leaders of 1.5 million nonprofits? OY. And that’s just here in the U.S.

It takes its toll. I work at the expense of my hobbies, my health, my relationships.

Crazy, right? People I don’t know take priority over my loved ones.

And so my wife and I (just the two of us) spent the last two weeks at a health boot camp. It wasn’t fun. And I am abundantly aware that only Type A workaholics select ‘vacations’ of this sort. Well, and also folks whose health is at risk. My wife and I check both boxes.

We reset our health. We ate without salt, sugar and oil. We were up at 6:30 am daily. An hour of cardio, an hour of strength training, an hour of yoga and then lectures about what happens to your body with age, with stress.

I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned. Few folks will have the privilege of spending two weeks as we did but I can share the lessons. Some of them are personal – most of these unflattering. Some more global – educational and hopefully helpful.

And while I write about these lessons from my own perspective (female of a certain age) they apply to all of us.Continue Reading