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Learn how plan a retreat for your organization to form bonds with one another, review work purpose and motives, focus on specific goals and get a new look at your work.


  • What is a retreat?

  • Why organize a retreat for your organization or initiative?

  • When is the best time to organize a retreat?

  • Where should your retreat be held?

  • How do you plan a retreat?

What is a retreat?

A retreat is a type of group getaway in which the members of that group take time to form bonds with one another, contemplate their purpose and motives, and work on one or more specific goals.

People often mistake any group planning or training meeting for a retreat. Retreats are not supposed to be held at your office or any of the usual places your organization or initiative may use for meetings. Retreats often involve an overnight stay and are usually held at a campground or retreat center where your members can take some time to enjoy nature, talk with one another, think about your organization or initiative, and have fun. Some unstructured time should be set aside in the retreat schedule to allow members to do their own thing, think, and relax.

Why organize a retreat for your organization or initiative?

Retreats can be useful for your staff, members, volunteers, or board of directors. Some of the benefits of retreats are that they can:

  • Eliminate the outside distractions of your usual daily setting
  • Build enthusiasm and commitment among your staff or members
  • Cultivate an unceremonious, casual, unpressured mood
  • Create a sense of shared experience and bonding to help people better work together
  • Set aside some uninterrupted time to solve key problems
  • Allow you to step back and re-examine goals, objectives, and activities.

When is the best time to organize a retreat?

Anytime is a good time for a retreat. Retreats can be a great way for a new organization or initiative to start doing strategic planning. They can also help organizations that have been around for a while to re-energize and refocus.

Retreats can also be used to get a group back on track after a rough patch. For example, if your initiative has just reorganized its board after several resignations, a retreat may be just what you need to bring new board members into the fold and come up with a unified plan for the future. Another example: if your organization has recently gone through a period of internal conflict, a retreat can serve to clear the air, work out your differences, and regroup.

Lest we sound too gloom-and-doom, it's important to point out that retreats can be used at more positive times in an organization's history as well. Say you've just found out that your initiative has received a huge and unexpected grant for the next year--a retreat could be used to both celebrate your good fortune and plan out how to most effectively use your windfall.

Whatever your organization is facing, a retreat may be just what you need to make things better or maintain things that are going well already.

When should you NOT have a retreat?

Of course, a retreat may not always be the best idea. When would be the wrong time to plan a retreat?

  • When you need to work on an individual's problems. ("Bob is always late to work, his grant proposals are never being accepted, and he tells racist jokes to members of the press. Let's have a retreat to work on this!" Nope!)
  • When having one will tax your organization too much financially. ("We have $500,000 in debts, we can't afford to make copies, and we just lost our grant. Let's have a retreat to figure out how to raise more money!" You're going to pay for this how?)
  • When your organization has several big problems. ("Our office manager just disappeared along with all the ledgers and a big chunk of the payroll fund, the development director and the volunteer coordinator aren't speaking to each other, our roof is leaking, and some guy from 60 Minutes keeps trying to ambush our director in the parking lot. Let's have a retreat!" You need a lot more than just a retreat to handle this stuff.) While you might have a retreat for one or two big problems, you should probably take a different approach if there's more going on than that.

Where should your retreat be held?

Your retreat can be held at some place as simple and inexpensive as a public park or campground, or it can be held at an elaborate and luxurious resort. If the retreat is for a fairly small group, you might even have it at the private home of someone you know. All that really matters is that it be someplace peaceful away from your usual setting. The rest depends on factors like your budget, how long you want the retreat to be, and what sort of spaces are available in your area.

How do you plan a retreat?

The key to planning a retreat is to give yourself plenty of time. While various retreat experts have many opinions on when you should begin planning a retreat, a general rule is that unless the retreat is going to be something done on a really small scale, you need about two to four months to plan the entire thing. You may, however, have to reserve a site earlier than that. Here's a step-by-step guide to planning your retreat; feel free to adjust this suggested schedule to your own needs.

4 months ahead of time:

Set goals for your retreat:

First and foremost, you should know what you want to accomplish with this retreat. Is this a planning retreat? Is it for staff training? Is it for mending fences after a period of conflict in your organization? Is it simply meant to re-energize your board or staff? Figure out exactly why you want to have this retreat and then set some more specific objectives.

Possible goals for a retreat could include one or more of the following:

  • Team building/unity
  • Learning
  • Communication
  • Planning/strategizing
  • Socializing
  • Problem solving
  • Training/orientation
  • Re-examining your goals and objectives

Start looking into retreat facilities.

If you're having your retreat at a campground, resort, hotel, or retreat facility, start calling around and asking places to send you brochures or other information on their facilities and prices. Talk to other groups like yours who have recently held retreats to get their recommendations on facilities.

Also, consider free or inexpensive sites--for example, college campuses will often donate space to human service organizations, and state parks are often free or charge very small fees.

Decide who will attend.

Will this retreat be for a particular part of the staff or the entire staff? Is it a retreat for the board? Will you include volunteers? Knowing the goals of the retreat will help you decide who can best contribute to reaching those goals, and this should help you decide who should participate in the retreat.

Start looking into possible presenters or consultants.

This is yet another thing that depends on the scale of your retreat; it also depends on the retreat's goals. Sometimes it's a good idea to bring in someone who isn't a part of your organization--for example, if the aim of the retreat is to end a conflict, having an impartial party step in to mediate may be the best way to handle it. Good facilitators and popular speakers are often booked a year or more ahead, so if you know who you want you should go ahead and check on his or her availability as early as possible.

3 months ahead of time:

Decide how long the retreat will be.

Once you have decided on your retreat goals, consider how long it might take to accomplish those goals. Unless it will be a very short retreat, you should be sure it's long enough to have some fun group activities as well as some free time in the schedule. Will it last for an afternoon? Two days and a night? An entire weekend?

Pick a date (or dates) for your retreat.

When deciding on a date, it's important to choose one that the people you want to attend are likely to be able to fit into their schedules. For example, make sure your date doesn't coincide with religious holidays. You might find that a weekend is best. If most of the people you want to come to the retreat aren't available on weekends, then a weekday retreat would be better. Be aware of things that are going on in the lives of your potential retreat participants--don't schedule your board retreat for the same weekend as a board member's wedding, for example.

Make a preliminary budget.

While you don't necessarily have to nail everything down right now, you need to have an approximate idea of how much you can afford to spend and on what you'll be spending it. Come up with a rough budget for things like site fees, accommodations, meals, transportation, recreation, speaker or consultant fees, photocopying, audiovisual aids, and so on.

Assign planning duties.

Depending on the scale of your retreat, you may decide to have just a handful of people handling organizational tasks. If it's fairly small, one person may very well be able to handle the entire thing. However, if it's a large-scale retreat, you may wish to delegate planning duties to a few individuals, or you might even decide to form committees. Whatever the case may be, decide now who will be in charge of what and get that person or those people started on those duties.

Carefully think through what kinds of activities you're planning. Interactive, participatory activities are far more likely to build group spirit and a sense of mission than lectures, not to mention doing more to keep people awake. Mixing things up can help keep people fresh; try doing different things in the course of a session like interspersing individual, small group, and large group, etc. with socializing and quiet time. The longer the retreat, the more important this becomes.

Other things you should think about with regard to your planned activities:

Do they fit with the philosophy and mission of your organization?
Are they inclusive of everyone attending the retreat?

Come up with a rough schedule.

This is the time for you to make some decisions about what sort of activities will be planned, when each of those activities will be held, and how much time will be set aside for each. Sketch out a rough schedule, starting with some sort of icebreaker if most people don't know each other well, or a team building group activity if people do know each other. Be sure to include lots of breaks and free, unstructured time in your schedule.

Reserve a site.

Choosing a good site may be the most important step in planning your retreat. It's a good idea to choose one--and only one--member of your group to be the contact person with the facility. This avoids any confusion ("I thought you confirmed our reservation?" "No, I thought you did it!!").

Below are a few questions to ask yourself when selecting a retreat site.

Questions when choosing a site:

  • What kind of accommodations do we want? Dorm rooms, cabins, hotel?
  • Do we want to cook for ourselves or have meals provided? If we cook for ourselves, are kitchen facilities available and is there an extra charge?
  • Are the facilities accessible to people with disabilities?
  • If camping, do we want bathrooms or outdoor showers?
  • What level of quality can we afford in our meals?
  • How many meeting rooms do we need?
  • Do we mind sharing a facility with other groups, if necessary?
  • Is there any extra charge for use of meeting facilities?
  • Do we need to provide your own audiovisual equipment, or can the facility do it?
  • What sort of recreational opportunities are available?
  • If camping in cabins, are linens available or do we have to bring our own?

Before making a final decision, try to talk with other groups that have used that facility if you haven't already. Ask them about the quality of the facilities, the service, and the hospitality. Facilities should be willing to give you references to former customers.

If possible, have several date options that would work for your group in case the facility you really want isn't available on a particular date. Be sure to find out specifically what is and what isn't included in their charges. If you're not a nonprofit organization, be sure to ask how much tax they charge in order to come up with a realistic figure for your budget. Get a written contract--with the price on it--signed by your group representative and the camp representative. Most retreat facilities expect a non-refundable deposit of 10 to 15 percent.

Depending on what kind of facility or site you'll be using, you may have to do this step earlier than 3 months before the retreat. When in doubt, call around and ask facilities how much lead time they need for a reservation, or reserve a tentative date that you can change later on.

2 months ahead of time:

Finalize the retreat schedule.

This may seem like a long time in advance to have a final schedule, but finishing that part of your planning up now will help you finish all the other details in plenty of time. Again, be sure to include some free time. You might want to have some organized activities planned during free time for those who are interested--like a group volleyball game or a nature hike--but don't make these activities required.

Find out about the needs of your consultant, if you're using one.

If any presenters you're bringing in from outside the organization have any specific needs, now is the time to find out what they are. Do they need audiovisual equipment or do they have any specific requests about how the room is set up?

If this is a large scale retreat, send out invitations or notices.

Of course, if your retreat is only for five or ten staff members, you can just give out the info to each person individually. However, if you are holding a retreat for a fairly large number of people, you will want to send out written information to them all. Doing it this far ahead of time gives people plenty of time to plan the retreat into their schedules and make any arrangements necessary for them to be able to attend.

Make any final decisions about accessibility.

Do you need to schedule a sign language or foreign language interpreter? Do you need to make large-print handouts for participants who have visual impairments? Are there any further special arrangements to be made with the facility with regards to service animals or wheelchair access? Now is the time to finalize any plans regarding these things.

If providing transportation, make arrangements.

Chartering buses, organizing carpools, and so on should be done at this point. Again, be sure to consider any special needs for people with disabilities in your transportation arrangements.

1 - 2 weeks ahead of time:

By now, you will have done almost all your planning!

  • Check with retreat site to see that all arrangements have been made
  • Round up any needed equipment or supplies (nametags, slide projectors, etc.).
  • Make final arrangements for meals if you have to bring your own
  • Do any needed photocopying (agendas, worksheets for group activities, etc.).

Day before:

  • Go over your agenda one last time and make sure you've got everything ready.
  • If you used committees, check with committee heads for last minute problems
  • Most importantly, relax and get some rest! You want to be clear-headed and energetic when the retreat begins tomorrow.

At the end of the retreat:

Evaluate the retreat.

It's important to find out how satisfied participants were with the retreat and how well you were able to meet the goals you set for it. It's best to set aside some time in the schedule at the end specifically for evaluation. This way, you're not only gathering information on how participants felt about the retreat; you're also giving the participants a chance to understand what they've just been through (this is especially important if the retreat involved any emotionally intense issues).

Depending on the scale of the retreat itself and how much depth of information you want from participants, you may simply distribute a short evaluation questionnaire, or you might split people up into small groups and have them engage in a discussion.

Some questions to ask:

  • Did you meet your objectives for the retreat?
  • How did you feel about the facilities?
  • How did you feel about (specific activity)?
  • What did you like or not like about (specific activity)?
  • What parts of the retreat do you think will be most useful to you in advancing your organization or initiative's cause?
  • Why?
  • What parts of the retreat were least helpful to you? Why?
  • Was there a good balance between free and structured time?

Clean up afterwards.

If your retreat was held at a campground, public park, or anyplace else where facility staff doesn't handle clean-up, be sure that you and your staff have cleaned up the entire area

If the facility you used worked out well and your retreat is going to be an annual thing, go ahead and reserve it for next time.

Forming a relationship with a good facility can be mutually beneficial for your organization and the facility. Of course, if you find a good facility and stick with it every year, it saves you the trouble of shopping around for a place to hold your retreat, but that's not the only reason to consider using the same facility every time. Getting to know the staff at a facility and giving them your business repeatedly makes them more likely to go out of their way to accommodate any special requests you might have and offer you discounts or special packages.

In Summary

Whatever reason you have for planning a retreat for your organization or initiative, the key to a successful retreat is to plan carefully, and plan well ahead of time. Since a retreat is supposed to help you step back and take a refreshing, new look at your work, it's important to go about it in a way that doesn't stress you out or drain your resources. Retreats that are thrown together at the last minute rarely accomplish what they're meant to, and advance planning can keep you from becoming overwhelmed and overworked with the details.

Chris Hampton

Online Resources

Jumonville Christian Camp, Conference & Retreat Center. (1998). Planning your retreat: One Step at a Time.

National Lutheran Outdoors Ministry Association. (1998). Retreat planning countdown.

Retreat Planning Guide by Student Organization Officer Transition Guide, Old Dominion University, Office of Student Activities and Leadership.

Successful Retreats That Get Results, by Mary Abbajay, offers a comprehensive overview for guiding and planning a retreat.

Susquehanna University Campus Center Office. (1998). Planning a group retreat.

Print Resources

Catholic Youth Foundation (1999). Retreats and lock-ins.

Doxey, J., & Sugarman, P. (1999).To Retreat or Not to Retreat, an Important Question. Birmingham, AL: The Nonprofit Resource Center of Alabama.

Eddie, D., & Kethley, A. (1994). Keys to successful board-staff retreat. Nonprofit World, Vol. 12, No. 6. 23-28.

Howe, F. (1997). The board member's guide to strategic planning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.