In our previous blog post, we shared how we have been evolving our governance, including rethinking the composition of our governing bodies and redesigning how we work together.
We designed our governance with the intention for it to meaningfully and actively participate in our work and challenge our perspectives. For this, we needed to carve dedicated time and space for new governance members and staff:
- To connect with each other and to the knowledge and colleagues they need to shepherd our organization well;
- For collaborative norming, by collectively exploring the values of our work, creating space for diverse ideas, and establishing how we want to work and learn with one another; and
- To name and face challenges together.
With these goals in mind, we worked with Learning Day facilitators Sara Ramos and Carla Brites Santos to design and host our first Strategy Retreat, a month-long virtual experience involving five members of staff and fourteen members of our governance team, where we lay the foundations for how we will work together.
The retreat’s biggest logistical challenge was to find times that fit into our governance and staff members’ schedules across six time zones. Early in the planning process, we realized that for everyone to be able to participate in most sessions, the sessions would have to be spread across a month, each 1.5 - 3 hours in length. In total, participants dedicated over 15.5 hours during the month of the Retreat to a mix of synchronous full group sessions, smaller separate cohort sessions, and asynchronous “homework” activities.
In planning the retreat, we focussed on dedicating time to the following activities:
- Bonding: creating safe spaces for participants to get to know each other in a deeper and more meaningful manner so to build trust and mutual understanding
- Working together: for collaborative norming and establishing new working habits, especially on devising solutions to complex, nuanced challenges related to our current work
- Reflection: for learning from each other and growing together, identifying areas for follow-up and additional development
Below, we’re sharing the retreat’s program, including some of the exercises we have designed and links to session recordings. We hope these would be reusable resources for those organizing their own retreat. You can also find a more detailed version of the program in our Retreat Workbook.
- Aims: orient the participants to each other and the process we’d designed.
- We developed and shared our Orientation Packet before the retreat to onboard participants to our organizational structure, priorities, strategies, and resourcing.
- We asked all participants to record a short video to introduce themselves to others, with an answer to the question “what does courage mean to you?” and upload it to our Google Drive.
- We asked all participants to review the recordings of others as a way to virtually “meet” their fellow participants before the start of the retreat.
2. Opening session (3 hours)
- Aims: warm up and get to know each other; reflect on how the past experiences of everyone in the room would shape their contribution to the work we would do together.
- We used the exercise “What’s your money story?” to reflect on our perceived notions, experiences, and relationships with money, and how those influence our work with IOI.
3. Ways of working (2.5 hours/group)
- Aims: each group (Steering Committee, Community Oversight Council, and staff) started defining how they want to work together– purpose, needs, activities, rules. Each group also defined what they needed from the other groups to do their best work.
- We used the exercise “The Values Star” to reflect on our personal values in various aspects of our lives, and explore how they affect our work as a team.
4. Naming the challenge (3 hours)
- Aim: use a facilitated framework to name and address the top challenges the team has chosen as the most impactful.
- Before the session, we asked participants to use the EasyRetro platform to answer the following questions anonymously:
- What questions do we not have sufficient answers to?
- What are we not talking about and should be, as a team?
5. Expert session (2 hours)
- Aims: to encourage our team to think bigger and more creatively as a group, to bring more profound insights into where we draw inspiration.
- Here, we share the recordings of our discussions: with Pia Mancini (Open Collective), titled “Re-imagining how we think of investment”; and with Joy Owango (Training Centre in Communication, and AfricArXiv) and Elizabeth Searing (the University of Texas at Dallas), titled “Nonprofit effectiveness and assessment”.
6. Investment Elements Workshop (2.5 hours)
- Aims: to explore and learn together how to assess, evaluate, and communicate key investment elements to various stakeholders; to gather participants’ input and relevant examples.
- To prepare for this workshop, we shared some resources on asset framing and different investment elements.
- We designed a hands-on exercise for participants to practice asset framing.
7. Closing Session (2 hours)
- Aims: to reflect on what went well and what can be improved when we worked together, to outline our next steps, and to celebrate our accomplishments
Outcomes and Next Steps
From the post-retreat feedback, participants reflected that they had been able to meet and build relationships with each other in an organic and interesting way. From sharing deeply personal stories to admitting feeling overwhelmed and uncertain at times, the participants showed vulnerability, honesty, and courage, which laid important groundwork for their future interactions and involvement in IOI’s work.
The retreat also inspired participants to consider new ways of thinking and learn from other perspectives. In their post-session and retreat reflections, participants remarked that the experience surfaced areas of commonality and disagreement, provided spaces for deep reflection and thought, and that participants felt inspired and more connected to their peers as a result.
The retreat has provided dedicated space for deep thinking and discussion on complex, challenging topics in which IOI's work is embedded (to quote one of the participants, “breaking open the can of giant questions”). While we did not arrive at answers or solutions (which was not the goal of creating these spaces), we have built a greater understanding of each others’ experiences and perspectives.
We dedicated time to work on specifics, from diving into some practical questions that IOI is currently exploring to picking a project to work on and roadmapping that work. This resulted in leaving the retreat with concrete next steps for IOI staff, Steering Committee, and Community Council to move forward with. For example, IOI’s leadership will be adding operational details to our strategic plan and sharing a roadmap of activities with the Steering Committee and Community Oversight Council. Our Community Oversight Council will be planning and hosting public community calls. We hope to share more about these specific pieces of work soon.
What we learned
- Good governance takes time (and investment). We wanted to be mindful in bringing on new staff and governance members to take the time to develop new working practices as a group, invite participation in our work in an authentic way, and hold space for questions and dialogue. This took time, resourcing, and the support of external learning designers and facilitators to help add capacity for all of us to engage as fully as we could in the process.
- Scheduling synchronous meetings across multiple time zones is hard. We’ve been actively working to decenter the North American dominance in our governance. This makes scheduling a challenge, as we look at a timezone span best described as “mutually inconvenient” spanning the west coast of the Americas to the east coast of Africa.
- Virtual bonding is possible (but takes thought and planning). Many of us spend most of our days on virtual calls with our colleagues and teams, attending events, and connecting with peers. Finding ways to meaningfully connect when so much of our lives are still virtual is a design challenge that we were grateful to have the support (and creative solutions!) of the team at Learning Day to guide us through.
- Too much ambiguity is a blocker to participation and engagement. The breadth of our work means that participants may not be familiar with all the issues, concerns, personalities, and larger contexts in which we work. Giving everyone a meaningful overview and initiation into the work was essential to bringing them into the conversation. While we wanted to reserve our opinions and perspectives to make space for the views and perspectives of others, we got feedback that rather than encouraging broader participation, it discouraged it. Finding the right balance where ideas are expressed but not imposed and conversation can be expansive will be part of our planning for these types of sessions going forward.
We would like to sincerely thank our Steering Committee, Community Oversight Council, and Retreat facilitators. Your courage, dedication, care, and generosity have uniquely contributed to this profound learning experience and have laid the foundation for a strong working relationship.