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How to Find and Hire the Best Board Retreat Facilitator – a 9-Point Checklist . . .

Updated: Apr 24

Screening for the Best Board Retreat Facilitators


Have you ever sat through a board retreat and spent more time watching the clock, daydreaming, and checking texts than listening to the facilitator? Are your board members cringing at the thought of attending another retreat? Did your last facilitator stand behind a lectern and drone on like a record playing in slow motion? Were they unengaging? Was the content dull and irrelevant? Did the outcomes of the day grow stale and ultimately have little impact on your board?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, it’s time to find a new facilitator. But how do you choose? What follows is a checklist of attributes you can use when scouting for the “best” board retreat facilitator.

1. In-the-Trenches Experience

Watch out! More than 80 percent of nonprofit board retreat facilitators have never run a nonprofit. Many, and I mean many, planning “facilitators” are charlatans who got their credentials taking hokey online courses. The best facilitators have started or run multiple nonprofits. They can empathize with where you are because they’ve been where you are. They know firsthand the hardships of engaging board members, raising money, and managing unruly board members. And they can provide key insights that prove invaluable because they can draw from the successes and perils of their in-the-trenches experience.

2. Credibility

If a facilitator does good work, people will happily sing their praises. The best facilitators have dozens of written and video testimonials on their websites. They will have long lists of clients and references. If you ask for references, they won’t provide their best three, they provide their last three. They often have their own books, blogs, and podcasts. If you visit a prospective facilitator’s site and it looks like a messy kitchen and lists only a few testimonials and references, or worse yet, none of each . . . run!

3. Impact-Driven

It’s fair to expect exceptional service and specific outcomes from a facilitator. And why not . . . you’re paying good money! You want to hire a facilitator who is as passionate about improving the quality of your board as you are. Look for someone with a record of going above and beyond, and exceeding expectations. In the end, your board should leave feeling inspired and unified. Most importantly, board members should leave feeling motivated to make the changes necessary that will take your board to the next level of performance and impact so your mission can soar!

4. Facilitates and Engages with Confidence

We’ve all taken part in board retreats where the day was steamrolled by strong personalities, and it’s maddening. The best facilitators will confidently take you on a journey of exploration, education, discussion, and planning. Look for a facilitator who uses tactics to control hijackers, manage disputes, give everyone a voice, create buy-in, and build consensus. They will also have people up and moving around doing thoughtful, interactive exercises, usually in small groups to facilitate discussion and collaboration.

5. Makes the Day Fun!

Tired of squirming through board retreats that fall short of your expectations? Boring retreats provide no value and waste everyone’s time. The best facilitators make their retreats fun and lively, and are quick witted and funny themselves. They incorporate engaging team-building exercises and icebreakers to break up the day with some laughs and to build relationships.

6. Enthusiastic, Inspirational, and Exceptional Communicator

No one wants to listen to a stoic facilitator pontificate behind a lectern reading lame PowerPoint slides. Yuck! The best facilitators are professional, intentional, and practical, but that doesn’t mean they are dull. Look for a facilitator who is enthusiastic, high-energy, motivational, a master storyteller, and uses retreat tactics to make the day fun, meaningful, and memorable.

7. Asks the Right Questions

Anyone can ask canned questions that lead to canned responses. What distinguishes the best facilitators from average ones is knowing the right questions to ask at the right moment to yield outstanding results. They don’t a follow a script. Assessing this is difficult when interviewing a facilitator, but you can glean insights from former clients, which is why you want to watch testimonial videos and call references. Facilitating a high-impact, memorable retreat is an art and the best facilitators are master artists.

8. Uses a Pre-Retreat Assessment Process

The best facilitators spend a lot time collecting information before the retreat. They use online surveys, analyze metrics, review marketing collateral, assess board culture, and review key information about an organization. They do their homework. They will make calls to select board members and staff, and solicit feedback from stakeholders if required. If a facilitator lacks a pre-retreat process for collecting, analyzing, and presenting key information about the board and organization, move on to the next candidate.

9. Offers Accountability and Management Tools

Why spend a bunch of money on a retreat if the outcomes sit in a file and collect dust? The best board retreat facilitators provide an implementation plan and on-going support services. This includes an accountability process to ensure the people overseeing the execution of the outcomes get things done. Facilitators should also provide some type of management tool (dashboard) to manage retreat outcomes . . . and make sure it’s not some cheesy Word document that squishes all the actions plans into a few columns. And the best of the best facilitators have dozens of corporate, board, and fundraising templates that they provide or sell to improve the quality of polies and corporate documents of the organizations they work with..

Tom Iselin

“America’s Best Board Retreat and Strategic Planning Facilitator”

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Tom's Books and Channels

Tom Iselin has built four sector-leading nonprofits and four foundations. He’s written six books, sits on six boards, and hosts a video blog and podcast. Each year, Tom speaks to more than 5,000 nonprofit leaders at conferences across the country. He is considered America's best board retreat and strategic planning facilitator and is a leading authority on high-performance nonprofits, and his impact on the industry has been featured on CNN, Nightline, and in Newsweek.

Tom is the president of First Things First, a business specializing in board development retreats, strategic planning, fundraising, executive coaching, and speaking. To relax, he loves mountain biking, hiking, skiing, tennis, and baking.

If you’re in the hunt for the best board retreat/board development facilitation, or the best strategic planning facilitation, it would be a privilege to learn more about your organization and the aspirations you hope to achieve as you work to propel your noble mission. Jot me an email to set up a meet-and-greet call.

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