Retreats that Work

Man, I love retreats. In terms of team dynamics and organizational flow, there may be nothing better. My staff team probably wishes I didn't love them as much as I do.

In an environment that is constantly shifting and changing, retreats are needed more than ever. They allow us to refocus on our mission and objectives. They can also unplug us from the gadgets that rule our lives. There is something about an easel pad, markers, and honest eye-to-eye conversation that is just simply healthy.
Now, retreats can also be a phenomenal waste of time. They require thoughtful planning in order to be effective. Below are five points I’ve learned about retreats over the years, and I encourage you to add your own.

Point #1: The retreat needs to be productive.
A retreat should never be all about play. A retreat can be fun, but it’s a work day. Going to the local amusement park is not a retreat. If your supply list includes bathing suits, koozies, and suntan lotion, it’s also not a retreat. A retreat is a learning activity, and should be treated as such. It’s out-of-the-classroom learning, so it is indeed different in many ways. But it’s still generally an intellectual exercise. 

A brotherhood- or sisterhood-building social activity (such as rafting, camping, theme park, etc.) is fine, but “social activity” describes them accurately. Reserve “retreat” for the times in which participants are focused, ready to roll up their sleeves, and prepared to chart a better future for the organization. This doesn’t mean you sacrifice the teambuilding aspect. Don’t assume that brotherhood or sisterhood is built only through social events. In fact, the greatest teams are forged through collective action towards shared objectives. In other words, your “working” retreat will build greater connections and teamwork than any social activity could.

Point #2: It’s called a “retreat” for a reason. Go someplace different.
Brain science has proven that a change in venue can lead to a change in perspective. Retreats work best when participants feel that it is a special event, worthy of a different level of participation and thinking. A different venue can contribute to this feeling. Stay away from your chapter house, a classroom, or a meeting room in the student union. These are too ordinary. I personally encourage you to consider camps or other settings that incorporate nature. These types of venues can add a layer of calm and peacefulness to the event.
Any of the following are good options: Official retreat/conference centers, Boy Scout/Girl Scout/FFA/YMCA/Kiwanis camps, church facilities, restaurants with a unique feel, state parks, etc.

Cost might be a concern, but planning well advance will give you more options. Camps and parks are typically cheaper. Also consider distance and transportation when selecting a site.

Point #3: Your retreat needs a purpose.
Why do you need a retreat? Why is it being considered? What do you need to accomplish?
  • Identify and get problems out in the open.
  • Promote communication among all members.
  • Establish common goals and objectives.
  • Identify and relate the philosophy of the organization.
  • Transition new officers into their positions.
  • Have the members get to know each other on a deeper level.
  • Motivation; re-centering on purpose.
  • Discussion of values/Ritual.
Thinking about this beforehand will help you organize a retreat that best suits the members' needs. You could also plan a retreat that concentrates on one critical function of the organization, such as:
  • Recruitment Preparation - Educating members on effective recruitment and setting group recruitment goals.
  • Values Clarification - Helping participants understand themselves and others.
  • Leadership Development - Developing leadership skills to promote better committee members, committee chairs, or officers.
  • Risk Management - Teaching, clarifying, and gaining agreement on policies and procedures.
  • Scholastic Goal Setting - Giving members an opportunity to set personal and group goals in the area of academic achievement.
  • Pre/Post Initiation - Offering an opportunity for members to fully understand the impact of the oaths they are about to or have just taken.
  • Alumni Relations - Setting goals for improved alumni relations and programs. Gather suggestions from alumni or invite alumni to participate in this program.

Point #4: Beware the curse of the comfy couches.
Your retreat location should be comfortable, but that doesn’t mean you should sit all day. Full-day retreats commonly suffer from group malaise after lunch and as the afternoon carries on. Do as much as you can to make the retreat interactive, instead of a just a rotation of talking heads. Here are a couple of common tools for adding interactivity to a program:
  • The Partner Share: Instead of discussing a question or idea with the full group, ask participants to first talk about it with a fellow participant. This gives the quieter members a chance to share their ideas. After a few minutes, open it up for a larger discussion. You’ll likely get more and better responses.
  • The Small Group: Having ideas discussed in smaller groups of 5-8 participants works for many of the same reasons given above for the partner share. However, you can ask the small groups to accomplish more, such as solving one component of a larger question. For instance, if you are discussing academic achievement in the organization, you might assign smaller groups each of the following issues to discuss and make recommendations for: (1) recognizing academic achievement, (b) revising chapter academic standards, (c) utilizing campus resources, (d) programs to encourage academic success. You could also use small groups to teach a big topic, such as risk management policies. Assign small groups portions of the policies to review and teach back to the larger group in creative ways.
Breaking into smaller groups is also a great way to split up pledge classes, age groups, cliques, officers, new members, etc., which can add to the teambuilding element of the retreat.
Although they are often a target of complaints and groans, teambuilders and icebreakers can be effective for setting up a positive learning environment as well. You may get some evil glares from the participants, but weigh that against the boredom and lethargy that comes from inactivity. There are thousands of books and websites with ideas for teambuilders. The NIC resource “Brotherhood Building Activities” is one to add to your library, if it’s not already there. Also, your advisors and headquarters staff likely have a lot of options to share with you.

Point #5: You don’t need to do this alone.
The life of a Fraternity/Sorority Advisor can often be a constant deluge of negativity. They are always putting out fires and reacting to unfortunate incidents. Imagine a chapter leader walking into their office and inviting them to help facilitate a proactive retreat intent on building a stronger future for the fraternity or sorority. That’s the kind of work they want to be doing! The basic point is this – you have several caring individuals who would be willing to help you plan and implement the retreat. All you need to do is ask.

If you have a budget, there also many talented professional facilitators available to you.
I hope this has been helpful in some way. Leading, managing, and growing an organization like a fraternity or sorority is hard work. Going at it every single day can wear down even the greatest chapter. The strongest organizations know that in order to keep up their strength for the fight, on occasion, it’s necessary to retreat. Good luck!


  1. Another great post, John!
    You're right, I'd love for a chapter member to walk into my office to ask for this kind of assistance.

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