Q: We have a board retreat coming up. Directors are told attendance is mandatory, but we’re a month out and we’ve already gotten several excuses as to why people won’t be there. Do you have any suggestions for conveying that “mandatory” really means mandatory?


A: I can hear the vigorous nodding of heads across cyberspace, especially since your question is equally applicable for board, committee and orientation meetings, as well as events and community forums where board visibility is critical. Obviously, there will always be someone who truly cannot make it. After all, life throws some genuine curveballs when we least expect it. But, we all know that in most instances, the excuses are just that – excuses.  So, yes, there are techniques for ensuring attendance; but, they have less to do with persuasion and more with actions – our actions. Some rely more on the stick, while others on the carrot. Both have a place; and, the more of these actions we undertake, the more seriously we’ll be taken. Finally, none of these ideas is new. Each is tried and true. Sometimes, though, we need a reminder to return to the basics.

  • Determine those situations where you would like all your board directors to be in attendance, and incorporate them in your written list of expectations. Share these expectations before a prospect is even asked to join the board, again when s/he is asked, when s/he says yes, when s/he is oriented, and frequently thereafter.
  • Have a meaningful purpose for meeting, and make sure everyone knows what that is and appreciates the value of it. I’ll never forget the client that asked me to facilitate a retreat. When I asked about the objectives for the day, I was told to do whatever I wanted. The only reason they were holding a retreat was that they read somewhere that they were supposed to! No wonder there were attendance problems with those directors.
  • Publish the dates of all the meetings and events, including the retreat, a year in advance. Hold those dates as sacred, barring an act of God or war. It allows people to plan. It also removes the excuse that something else was already on the calendar.
  • Make it clear that not only are there few excuses for missing, there are consequences for doing so. Of course, this means having the guts to follow through on the consequences!
  • Base your annual board evaluation on a point system. Assign high point values to attendance at key meetings and events, including your retreat. Missing such an activity in this situation becomes potentially costly. (Here again is where those consequences come in.)
  • Have board directors communicate with colleagues that say they can’t attend. Have them ask about the broader picture to determine if other issues are at work here.
  • Ask directors to submit ideas for the content of the gathering. They know what knowledge they are lacking and what topics need more in-depth time. They’ll be more likely to attend if they know that the information they will receive and/or the experience they will have is of interest and pertinent to their needs.
  • Ask directors to facilitate the session(s). They’ll have to attend! Besides, we all know that people learn best what they must teach others.
  • Make the session long enough to accomplish your goals. Remember, form follows function. Choosing an arbitrary timeframe – e.g., three hours, assuming that is the maximum time you can request of your directors – and trying to fit your content into that defies logic.
  • Hold it someplace different and, ideally, interesting – someplace people will want to come. I once facilitated an orientation on a train. The organization called it the Orientation Express!
  • Build in opportunities for socialization. Sharing a meal is fine, but consider options that allow directors to get to see one-another in new and different ways. For one group I worked with, it meant a hootenanny, where anyone could pick up an instrument and lead the sing-a-long. In case you’re wondering, it really worked for them.
  • Tackle something challenging, something that requires everyone’s input.
  • Make the time interactive. Play games. I know, I know… your board doesn’t like anything “touchy-feely.” But if the games are specific to the objectives of the day and are properly debriefed, people really appreciate the change from “talk.” After all, we are just big kids at heart.
  • Incorporate multiple media channels where possible; though stay away from the deadly PowerPoint.
  • Serve food. Good food. It matters.
  • Give people the opportunity to win something. It doesn’t have to be big.
  • Use the gathering as the time for a big “reveal” – a new video, campaign, or transformative donation.

The key is that you build a reputation for holding extraordinary events – events (and this includes retreats and meetings) that no one will want to miss.