Special thanks to Vicki Fernandez (Director of Thriving Communities, Grunin Foundation) and Keith Timko (Executive Director of Support Center) for their input!

What do party decorations, s'mores kits, coloring books, food, ice cream, arts and crafts, stickers, a jazz band, networking and learning have in common? They were all a part of our first, semi-annual Nonprofit Board Retreat! 

This summer, we teamed up with our friends from Support Center for Nonprofit Management to host an open Nonprofit Board Retreat that offered tools, frameworks, and approaches for understanding the role of individual board members and the functioning of the board as a whole. The retreat was geared to all levels from prospective and new, to experienced board members as well as nonprofit staff who work with board members. This was a two-day retreat with one full day of course-learning offerings for both beginner and experienced track levels. The second day was a group collaborative learning experience around equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging, ending with a conversation on putting the weekend's plans into action. 

The two days can be summed up as a supportive environment with diverse groups of individuals from all service areas of the sector (theater, mental health, leadership development, etc.) across all levels of leadership and experience. We’d like to take you on a tour of the days so you can experience the vibe of what we think was an amazing first time (and certainly not the last) of hosting a Nonprofit Board Retreat! 

Day 1 

The Grunin Foundation and Support Center teams arrived early on day one to set the tone and set up the rooms. While this was a time for learning, it was equally important for us to provide a safe, comfortable and fun environment. We started with putting up decorations that gave a light and energetic feel to the room (shout out to Party City’s selection). There was a giant snack table – because you always have to have snacks – and a prize table for raffles later in the day. A hot buffet breakfast was put out with lots of coffee (rule #1 – you can never have too much coffee). 

When attendees arrived, they picked up their name tag and entered the big convening room at NJCU at Fort Monmouth. This venue worked so well as it has a large room where people can mingle, eat and learn, as well as individual classrooms for breakout sessions. Participants had time to eat breakfast, get fueled up with coffee and chat with their fellow nonprofit colleagues. Once it was time to begin, the Grunin Foundation welcomed everyone, and Keith Timko (Executive Director of the Support Center) kicked off the retreat with a brief explanation of how the days would flow. We passed out stickers with sayings like Choose Joy, Don’t Worry be Happy, You Got This – and many more motivational quotes, and had each attendee pick a sticker to give to the people sitting next to them. This was a simple but fun way to break the ice before the day began. 

From there, everyone went into their respective breakout rooms based on the track they chose – 101 for new and prospective board members and 201 for experienced board and staff. Participants had a full day of learning with topics including: 

  • The Role of Individual Board Members 
  • A Core Responsibility of the Board as a Whole 
  • How to Create a Board Recruitment Strategy  
  • What Does Effective Recruitment Really Look Like  
  • Difficult Conversations with Individual Board Members 
  • How to Take Stock and Plan for the Board of the Future 

In between all the learning was the fun – but let’s be real, fun was had in the classrooms, too. Everyone came back into the big room for lunch where they networked, ate and…surprise!... listened to an amazing jazz band (a little something we kept under wraps until lunch) called The Jazz Arts Project. The Jazz Arts Project, part of the Jazz Arts Academy, provides mostly high school students aged 13 - 19 with a ‘centralized jazz scene,’ a place where they can supplement their school music program, meet new players from the entire region and gain valuable skills and experience. They were incredible and added so much life to the day!  

Something cool we tried during the lunch break (as if a jazz band and lunchtime crafts weren’t cool enough), was the opportunity to win prizes by filling out a survey after the morning sessions. Feedback is incredibly important to us so we can ensure we are hearing and listening to the needs of the nonprofit community and are providing valuable resources. It also affords community members the opportunity to shape and reshape programs. Support Center made requesting feedback a little more fun – participants scanned a QR code that brought them to a quick survey. Everyone who scanned the code received a raffle ticket. Prizes included books, coloring books, art supplies, and the much-coveted s’mores kit that our very own Vicki created. We also took a few group pictures that really captured the vibe of the day. After lunch it was back to learning. 

Day 2 

Day 2 was all about Building a Unified and Inclusive Board Culture. We started Saturday morning with another surprise jazz band visit from the Jazz Arts Project, putting everyone in a great mood to start the day as they ate a yummy hot breakfast and settled in. Like Day 1, there were snack options, quiet spaces available, a quick craft, plenty of sticker trading, and later in the day, a BBQ lunch. 

Everyone from both tracks of experience were in the large room together for Day 2 and participated in group learnings and discussions around equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging. We started with Yvette Murry, a consultant with Support Center, who led the group in an activity to examine bias that we bring to boards and how it reflects on the board’s culture. Everyone in the room had an opportunity to share their experience around race and discrimination in professional settings and efforts to create more inclusive environments.  

During the lunch break, there was a buzz in the room of leaders discussing the morning, digging deeper into conversations surfaced during the activities, or just making new friends and getting to know fellow participants from different organizations. For nonprofits who came with multiple board members like Lakewood’s Strand Theater who attended with six leaders, lunch was a time for building relationships among teammates who were there together.  

Rodney Fuller, also with Support Center colleagues, drove the weekend home with final tips on building more inclusive effective boards and putting learning from the weekend into action. Each person set goals for their board participation and began to draft plans as a catalyst for action after the retreat. Keith Timko, who began the retreat as an inclusive, fun and joyous safe space for leaders to be vulnerable and support each other, closed out the weekend in the same way – however this time there may have been bubbles involved because who doesn’t love bubbles? If you’re confused or intrigued at this point, you should probably join for a future Nonprofit Board Retreat. Keith also shared an incredible resource available for help with nonprofit challenges: Support Center Office Hours.  

Nonprofit professionals who live, work, worship and/or serve in Ocean or Monmouth Counties and have burning questions about board governance, HR, financial management, staff communications or other nonprofit challenges can book 60-minute consultations ("Office Hours") with Support Center. You can learn more about that here: https://blog.gruninfoundation.org/support-center-office-hours-for-nonprofits  

Before everyone left, we had to end a summer weekend properly, pulling out a cooler with various frozen treats for an ice cream send-off with ice cream-themed decorations, fidgets, post-its, and goodies. Even after two full days of intense learning and fun, most people hung around and connected with each other a bit more after the event was over. We’d say this was a great success for our first try at hosting a nonprofit board retreat! 

What Worked 

Overall, we heard wonderful feedback, and our internal teams felt the retreat was a success! Of course, there are always opportunities to improve, but here are some of the things that really worked well: 

  • The size of the group (about 40-50 each day) was perfect for the space. The group was large enough to have a diverse perspective but small enough to have impactful and intimate conversations. 
  • The “self-care stuff” – lots of snacks, designated quiet rooms if anyone needed to take a break and easy (but fun) crafts that could be done during lunch and breaks to add some joy to the day. 
  • Resource binders were given to participants so they could take home tangible, helpful knowledge. Resources were also sent out digitally. 
  • Surprises like a jazz band are good. But we didn’t want any of the non-jazz band type surprises the day of, so we did a walk-through (“dress rehearsal”) with facilitators a day in advance. 
  • All of the planning, preparation and teamwork between the Grunin Foundation and Support Center leading up to the event. 

What We Learned 

We go into everything we do with an open heart and open mind – ready to celebrate what worked and to learn from any challenges and/or opportunities for the future. If you are planning a similar event, we have a few tips from what we learned that may be helpful to think about: 

  • Set up the day before instead of the morning of the event. While we got it all done that morning, it would have been helpful to check with the venue to see if we could have set up the day prior. This would have made us feel a bit less rushed, trying to get it all done before the first participant arrived. 
  • Possibly add a local, networking happy hour after the event so people can continue connecting outside of the classroom. Most people were eager to hang around and talk after the event was over. 
  • Get more video testimonials during the event to use for future marketing. 
  • Make sure topic expectations are clearly laid out so participants can come with a prepared mindset when sharing with the group.  

As we move forward into planning the next retreat, we will build upon what worked and look to incorporate new ways of doing things that could make for an even better experience. And one last thing that worked well – Vicki created an excel file (click to download a template) for post-event discussions so the Grunin Foundation and Support Center teams could share our thoughts on the strengths, threats, revelry/joy, opportunities, organizational values, and props/pride. It was a great way to recap the past and prep for the future.  

Don't just take our word for it...

Check out what some of the participants had to say!

Susan Merrill O'Connor, Director of Membership & Communications, New Jersey Center for Nonprofits

Ken Karamichael, Ed.M., NCVE, Associate Vice President for Professional Studies & Business Development, Georgian Court University

Maritza I. Raimundi-Petroski, MPA,Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, Prevention Programs, and Community Engagement, The Children's Home Society of New Jersey 

We will be sure to keep you updated when we host the next board retreat. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions, to share your own experiences or to give us a testimonial if you attended our first Nonprofit Board Retreat!