Editor's note: Karen Green, family foundation consultant, facilitator, and former vice president for the National Center for Family Philanthropy, provides the following tips for foundation leaders on engaging retreat participants.

A goal of retreats – and indeed of family foundations – is to ensure that everyone is engaged.

Foundation leadership, the senior generation and staff are clearly the best informed and most conversant with the foundation – the nonprofit environment, the grantmaking milieu, the finances, the logistics – you name it. Leadership and staff often wish to seize the opportunity of having the board together at a retreat to educate, expound and explain. While well meaning, the desire to educate has to be done carefully so as not to inadvertently restrict others’ participation.

Beware "excess explanation"

What I call “excess explanation” (e.g., expounding at length, and/or providing history, examples, or clarification when not absolutely essential) can make other participants feel one (or more) of the following:

  • The foundation is their project, I really don’t need to get involved.
  • I’ll just keep quiet, because what I say may not be right.
  • They know what they are doing. I’ll just listen and learn.
  • When I give my opinion, they tell me reasons we can’t pursue it, so why have an opinion?
  • I can’t pay attention, s/he could have made that point in one minute, and it’s been five!
Make Space for Engagement

Here are tips to avoid “excess explanation”:

  • The group is smart, they will grasp your points readily and quickly.
  • Given time, someone is very likely to make the very same point you would. Give the group that time.
  • Be wary of examples and historical accounts. Usually you can make your point without them. Trust your peers to ask for additional information if they need it.
  • Just because something hasn’t been done (or done successfully) doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If there is energy about an idea and a volunteer (a prerequisite your facilitator will ensure), why discourage the individual/group? Either they will learn a lesson, or succeed where others have failed.
  • If you can’t make your point in a minute, perhaps you haven’t thought through what you want to say OR it’s too complicated for the retreat and deserves dedicated consideration in a later meeting.
Clarify the Facilitator’s Role

The facilitator's role is to achieve the retreat goals and help everyone contribute. Facilitators should be asked and expected to guide the group’s conversation and keep everyone on task – and on time. Facilitator's may also be required to identify specific strategies to control individual remarks.... one option is an egg timer: when it’s done, the speaker is done!