Why Every Nonprofit Leader Hates Icebreakers (And Why You Shouldn’t)

 

icebrakers

You’ve all heard it: “Sure, we can do a retreat, but PLEASE no icebreakers!”

These words were probably uttered by a board chair or executive director whose sharing skills are about as good as mine were 15-20 years ago. That was around the time when I led my first nonprofit retreat as an executive director — I wasn’t big on sharing.

So you can imagine how terrified I was when I heard the request, “Tell us something the rest of the group doesn’t know about you.”

My heart thumped. My mind raced. Would anyone care about my vintage baseball collection?

Then, a staffer volunteered to share first, “I’ve decided to transition to become a man.”

I figured out two things at that moment. First, I learned that icebreakers can be very powerful. Second, I learned that I had to do better than my stinkin’ baseball card collection.

When it comes down to it, there are two big reasons why nonprofit leaders (and people in general) hate icebreakers:

  1. Most icebreakers are terribly, horribly awful. (read: they suck.)
  2. People don’t understand why they matter (and how powerful they can be).

The good news is that we can fix both of these in just one post! Seriously.

You see, these two problems are related. Once you figure out why they matter, you can design icebreakers that don’t suck and that meet their intended goal.

ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT WHY ICEBREAKERS MATTER

When you think of the word “team” what comes to mind? Probably themes like trust, collaboration, and a shared sense of values when it comes to what really matters. 

As Richard Chait shares in Governance as Leadership, it’s a cohesive team rather than a collection of individuals that defines a high-performing board. The same is true when it comes to your org’s staff.

Just ask my friend and colleague, Rachel Gibson who works with organizations undergoing leadership transitions. She’ll tell you that a team stands a good chance of governing through such a transition…but a collection of individuals who don’t know or trust each other? Who might have personal agendas? You can pretty much guarantee a very bumpy transition.

Members of a cohesive team respect each other’s ideas in a generative discussion about what’s possible. They work collaboratively in a crisis because there is already a bond. 

That’s where icebreakers come in.

ICEBREAKERS HELP TURN GROUPS OF PEOPLE INTO TEAMS

When we begin to know people well (and, NO, knowing about their baseball card collection does not count), we begin to understand their roots as a person, what has shaped them, their life experience, and yes, their values. Those values are inevitably what led them to your organization. 

And when there is an ongoing conversation about those values and how they intersect with your work, the bond gets tighter and tighter. You begin to see each other in this three-dimensional way that allows for respectful disagreement, allows for someone to share a risky big idea, allows for trust…

And none of this happens with a “business as usual” agenda. It happens with an investment of time in sharing your stories, talking about who you are, what shapes you, and what has brought you to this table.

And this my friends is why icebreakers matter.

BUT JOAN, MOST ICEBREAKERS STINK…

Yup. A lot of them do. Maybe because those nonprofit leaders haven’t read this post yet? (That was kind of a joke). But seriously, without knowing the why, they probably think icebreakers are just a necessary evil in starting an offsite. So the conversation on icebreakers usually begins and ends with a board chair saying, “Okay, okay! Pick something and get it done quickly so we can get to what really matters.”

And we begin the path to a self-fulfilling prophecy by selecting icebreakers like: “Would you rather only have summer or winter for the rest of your life?” or “Two Truths and a Lie”…

They feel cheezy because, well, they are.

CONSIDER THIS IF…THEN STATEMENT

If icebreakers matter, then we need to design them with intention so that they deliver the desired outcome. 

The setup matters too. Don’t just send out an agenda that says “Icebreaker: 30 minutes.” Write a cover letter about the offsite and its goals. Most of the goals will be self-evident from the agenda topics…but not the icebreaker. 

So you have to be very intentional that one of the goals is that in order to be a high performing team, you need to really get to know one another, talk about what matters to you, and then discuss the common threads and shared values that you find in each individual story. Tell them why it all matters. Feel free to send them this very post or cut and paste the relevant sections. You have to prime the pump to get them to really “go there.”

If my pump had been primed oh those many years ago, I would have dug deep. I would have understood why that was important. The whole baseball thing would never even have made my list.

SO JOAN, DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEAS FOR ICEBREAKERS THAT HELP FOLKS DIG DEEP?

Well, it just so happens I do. My favorite idea is actually my own (oh, I SO didn’t mean that to come out the way it sounded). With this one — The Best Nonprofit Icebreaker of All Time — you have participants write a 2-page autobiography with very few guidelines. If you think you and your team won’t go all-in with this one, then this post will eliminate all your doubts.

I also like shared readings — like an essay or a chapter of a book that may be a bit provocative and elicit very different opinions. These can have the impact a book club does in building respect for the ideas and opinions of others.

Another great intentional icebreaker, The Name Game, is just as it sounds — how did you come to have the name you do? Share what you know about the choice and its meaning. With this one, you’ll find people talking about their identity through the lens of their names. You will learn about folks’ parents or even their heritage and culture. 

ICEBREAKERS AREN’T A ONE AND DONE THING

And breaking the ice doesn’t have to happen only at an offsite. In fact, it shouldn’t. Sharing and learning about each other is a muscle you should continue to exercise. So maybe you can try some shorter ones (like The Name Game) at a regular meeting and then pick something where you can spend 45-60 minutes at an offsite.

Here’s hoping that with more context about why they matter, you’ll be able to make a stronger case to show that this is the work of a board or staff too. It’s not just some kind of obligatory warm up.

ONE LAST THOUGHT

Board Chairs and ED’s — the next time you’re designing an offsite agenda, try focusing on the ‘why’ of the session rather than the ‘what’ (the icebreaker). Imagine if instead of saying the word “icebreaker”, the agenda said “Sharing Our Common Values”. Maybe that would frame it in a way that resonates better for folks. I think that could make quite a difference.

To sum it all up, icebreakers have a bad rep. And it’s time to fix that because why they matter really matters.