What's Involved in Facilitating a Staff or Board Retreat?

Last week I was asked by a small non-profit for a proposed budget to facilitate a two day, off site, overnight staff retreat.  The retreat, they hoped, would have two components: team building exercises with a staff of nine to eleven (five of whom were hired this summer), and facilitation of implementation planning of their Board's new strategic plan.  They wanted to form several working groups, which with only 10 people, meant that we would have to stagger the working group meetings so that people weren't trying to be in two places at once.

This organization would make their decision on whether or not to hire me based on price.  First of all, I really appreciated not being asked to develop a full proposal when the issue was going to be price.  I provided this team three options for more or less time, and therefore in-depth work, across two days so that I could vary the price for them.  Even so, it can be really surprising to find out how much even a modest retreat can cost.

Let's look at some of what is involved in retreat facilitation.  It's obvious that you will pay the facilitator for the number of hours that they will engage with the group during the event.  You want to contract with someone who has experience and a reputation for being able to work with whatever issues or situations come up to get to a better outcome than was originally intended.  You want them to "get you" and you want them to know how to work with time to accomplish the task by the end of the event.  Don't just hire the lowest cost person.  If you don't finish or cover the necessary material, you've wasted the money you've spent on the facilitator, staff  or Board hours, space rental, food....  You get the idea.  But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Facilitators generally will meet with at least one leader to learn what is the impetus for having a retreat at all, clarifying your goals, getting background material on the team and the content, and learning how you plan to use the outcomes.  They may also be preparing to write a summary report for you. Sometimes it can be beneficial to meet with others in the organization or even conduct preliminary assessments or sessions.

Designing or planning a retreat takes lots of revisions, and therefore lots of time.  Each activity, along with transitions before and after it, has to be timed with sensitivity to how people generally engage with them.  Small groups may need to be formed within the larger group to give everyone a chance to talk.  Some discussions require sharing results with the whole group and, where group cohesion is important, more information may be needed before a decision can be made.  Comfort breaks, natural energy rhythms and lunch all need to be included at times when they will enhance the flow of the work.

The number of purposes you are including in your retreat multiply the complexity of the retreat design. For instance, in the dual purpose retreat requested last week, I would plan team building exercises that communicate past history of the organization to the new staff in such a way that the long timers gain closure on the old ways while getting relevant information into the current system to be used for planning for the next couple of years - at least.  Crafting the questions for the long-timers would take some figuring out!  Working even briefly with them on how they would present the information would be crucial to the success of the event.

Good facilitators will also look at the physical space where the meeting will be held (if at all possible) as part of designing the event activities, even if it's "just" discussion.  Physical arrangements make a big difference in how people participate. As you can see, an eight hour retreat can easily take 40+ hours of work!

You can help keep costs down by asking your facilitator what you can do yourselves.  Sometimes my clients consult with me and then collect their own data, and make the handouts, PowerPoint slides and any prep packets.  They may prepare their presentations far enough ahead of time, giving me copies of their draft presentations so I know the content of the follow-up discussions, requiring review and revision time, rather than development time.  They may have a couple of note-takers who will write up the Summary of the event.

If the facilitator you want is still out of your price range, you can tell them what your budget is and ask them what they can do for that.  I have facilitated one-day retreats with non-profits who were very well organized, for $2,500.  The non-profits were cohesive, very clear about a narrow set of goals (communicating a known set of information for decision making), and handed the reins over to me to make everything fit together.

People who are really good facilitators make it look easy. Don't let your eyes fool you!  With a skilled consultant who is neutral, carries authority and has the energy to connect well with everyone in the room all the time, your retreat can accomplish more than you dreamed.


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