The Best Ice Breaker of All Time For Nonprofit Retreats

Ice Breakers in the Wild

Ice breakers are the worst, right? I have facilitated literally hundreds of board and staff retreats and usually one of the very first things I hear are complaints about ice breakers.

“PLEASE no ice breakers.”

“I don’t do ropes courses.”

“I won’t share. I won’t, I won’t, I won’t.”

“The touchy feely stuff makes my skin crawl.”

I get it.

So when I facilitate a board retreat or a staff retreat, I always promise “NO ICE BREAKERS!”

Confession time. I do use an ice breaker, I just don’t call it that. Now you know.

So yes I lied. But here’s the absolute truth. My secret ice breaker recipe is foolproof. I’ve used it hundreds of times. It works every single time. People love it. Often, it’s transformative.

Today I share my secret recipe with you. And yes I understand that from this day forward, it will no longer be secret.

And I have a bonus at the end. So read the entire thing. It’ll be worth it.


The short answer: Most of them are just dumb.

For the longer answer, I’ll give you an example.

There’s a standard ice breaker that lots of folks use. It’s actually a lot of fun. It’s called “Drag Name”. Ever heard of it?

Basically the way it works is that you combine the name of your first childhood pet with your mother’s maiden name. It gets pretty funny. “Fluffy Rosenberg.” I remember cracking up at that one.

Ok, so we all get a good laugh. I guess it loosens things up. But why exactly are we doing this? Did I actually learn anything important about my staff? Did the ice breaker bring us together as a team? Did it allow us to really dig deep and talk to each other about stuff that mattered?



In fact we do.

While everyone hates ice breakers as a way to start retreats, everyone also shares a core goal: “bonding,” “getting to know one another better,” “creating a sense of cohesion” “building a sense of team.”

You cannot accomplish these kinds of goals without some kind of vehicle, mechanism, exercise. You know… an ice breaker.

Here’s one I used once that helped a lot in a specific case. This isn’t my foolproof super-secret awesome “don’t-call-it-an-ice breaker” ice breaker. I’ll get to that shortly. But it was still pretty cool.

I ran a staff retreat for a new Executive Director. The former E.D. had been absolutely horrible to every staff member – they were carrying all that abuse and clearly needed to let it go.


The retreat site was near a body of water. The agenda included an outdoor activity by the water.

I had everyone grab 3-4 sticks or rocks. One at a time each person threw something in the water. The rules were simple. Throw it as hard as you can and just before you throw it, announce to the group something the previous boss to the organization did to you that you just need to let go of.

Cheesy? Maybe. But it worked like a charm. Brought the group together, offered the new E.D. a real understanding of the past administration and served as a symbolic passing of the baton. It was funny at times, poignant at others.

OK, I so I promised a foolproof recipe for a retreat ice breaker. Let me not hold you in suspense any longer.


Ask every participant to write a two page bio submitted 3-4 days before the retreat.

That’s it.

There are some guidelines.

  1. This is a personal bio, not your formal professional bio.
  2. It cannot be longer than 2 pages.
  3. If it takes you more than 2 hours, you’re overthinking it.
  4. You must include at least 1 photo, which cannot be a professional headshot.
  5. There must be some reference to the roots of your commitment to the work of the organization.
  6. The format is entirely up to you. I’ve had a finance staff member prepare his in an excel spreadsheet. I’ve seen a board member make a collage with statements under each image. One program staff member wrote a spoken word poem.
  7. Let folks know there will be a quiz. This is important. Make a joke about it. No grades, no judgment. But it ensures that folks read the book. What book? I’ll get to that in a moment.
  8. I always include an example when I send out the assignment. Give folks a frame of reference about how they might approach it (hint: this is the bonus I mentioned earlier… I’m going to share with you MY ice breaker bio… this is the most personal I’ve ever gotten on this website.)

So, about that “book” I mentioned in #7. Once you get everyone’s bio, compile it into a single PDF so it feels like a book. Send this “book” out to everyone.

Ask everyone to read the book before the retreat. If you doubt people will do this, don’t. I promise you’ll get full buy-in. Folks will be dying to know how others approached the assignment.

On retreat day, you use the bio book in three ways.

Pop Quiz

This is actually my favorite part when I facilitate.

Sometimes when I have enough time, I do a little PowerPoint presentation. In at least one bio, there is always something really funny, something remarkable and something really, really lovely.

I try to capture all of that in the quiz and I work to include everyone. If you don’t have a facilitator, get 1-2 staff members to put the quiz together.

Common Themes

This is the bonding part. It never fails.

There are prominent threads and themes across all the bios. Everything from the role of women in people’s lives to loss to determination. The bios tell you what you need to know about what brings this group together.

Generous Inquiry

Once you start talking about the bios, they leave you with questions. Not of the nosy variety, but of the “I loved what you wrote and want to know more” variety. Ice breaker indeed.

I remember a staff member who was raised by a woman who was not his birth mother. Everyone was dying to know what became of her, if he still had a relationship with her. He loved her to pieces and was happy to talk.

This can happen at any point during the retreat. Do this when it feels right.


A few important things to know before you embark on the foolproof ice breaker recipe.

  • Some folks will grouse. Let them. Make them do it anyway. The grousers are often the ones most moved by the process.
  • Folks will say they don’t have time. They do. I had one participant write by headlamp from her tent on the Appalachian Trail to get it in on time. It was an awesome bio.
  • You might be afraid that some folks won’t do it. They will. I get 100% participation every time, though sometimes with some nudging. Trust me. Folks don’t want to be absent from the book.

The bio book is my own favorite part of a retreat. I get to really appreciate, respect and admire the board or staff I am working with. It enriches me.

You can only imagine how it will make the participants feel.


Remember I said that I offer staff one example to give them an idea. I give them my own. I followed all the rules above and wrote a two-page bio.

And so in the spirit of bonding with my readers, here’s an opportunity for you to learn quite a lot more about me personally. I hope you enjoy it. Just click the link below.

Download Joan’s personal 2-page bio example

And please – if you use my super useful “no-longer-secret don’t-call-it-an-ice breaker” ice breaker at your next retreat, please send me an email and let me know how it went. Perhaps I can help bring some attention to your nonprofit.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Elizabeth Woolfe

    Joan that was an amazing post! I am definitely going to use the non-ice breaker ice breaker. THANK YOU

    • Really glad you liked it! It seems to have hit a chord – lots of traffic this morning. Please promise me you will let me know how it goes

  • Debbie

    Loved your bio, Joan! Thanks for sharing it. And thanks for the great idea. But it seems to me that some people would balk at “2 pages”. Could this work as well with a one page bio? I know that people would highlight fewer things, but if the instructions said “it doesn’t have to cover your whole life” I think people would pick their favorite / most poignant experiences.

    • Debbie. I generally find that folks have a tough time staying on two pages, especially if they use multiple pictures. I like your friendly amendment about not covering your whole life.

  • Pure awesome. Great idea, too!

  • Kathleen Clayton

    Joan, what a great idea. I think it will work for my upcoming partners’ retreat. Don’t worry I’ll give you credit. PS. You r personal blog hit home. I too have a brother who passed in similar circumstances and I too feel guilty sometimes.

    • Kathleen. Not worried. Credit not necessary. I’d love to hear how it goes! And I’m sorry for your loss. Truly.

  • Linda Ketterer

    Joan– what a wonderful post– I love the non-icebreaker– and loved your bio even more! You have a gift for writing and clearly, living! Keep up the great work!

    • Linda. Your comment was really touching. I love writing this blog for this very reason – I know it really helps people.

  • Urs

    This is FANTASTIC. I’m looking forward to this activity for our next board meeting right after the new year!

    • Urs. Thanks for the feedback. It really does work like charm.

  • Susan Pope

    Joan – I absolutely LOVE this idea and will use it when I facilitate a regional meeting early next year. One question: What’s the format of the Pop Quiz? Do you select one item from each bio and ask everyone to identify who wrote it?

    • It can be formal or informal. Most questions open with “Which of your colleagues……” it can be some crazy job for ex. Or ‘two of your colleagues both worked at a gas station. who are they.” Which of your colleagues said the following – and you put in either a hilarious or a very poignant quote. I mix up funny and poignant.

      • Susan Pope

        Sounds like a lot of fun. I’m really looking forward to using this. Thank you!

  • Dana Weeks

    Joan facilitated an administrative retreat for Germantown Friends School and the “Don’t Call It an Ice Breaker” Bio Book was HUGELY successful. I believe that our team is better able to collaborate and engage empathetically with other team members as a result of the insights resulting from the Bio Book exercise. The bonus is that the exercise is truly enjoyable—even though everyone moans and groans when the assignment is made—and the Bio Book review with Joan is a hoot! We had a blast and learned much. Not surprisingly, this is awesome—just like Joan!

    • Dana. Your staff really got into the exercise and in fact the staff member who wrote from the Appalachian Trail via headlamp was a member of Dana’s team. Many thanks Dana.

  • Holly Meadows Baird

    Sometimes, we need a physical warm up to start a session or break from a long session and those can be just as horrid as icebreakers. Do you have any suggestions for that?

    The one I love, *when it’s with the right audience*, gets you warmed up and laughing. You have everyone stand up. Then you have them all imagine and “hold” an enormous imaginary marker. Take the cap off. Throw it behind you. Then take that marker and stick it up your bum. (Choose your words carefully here as to not offend… This is when people think you are crazy but bear with me!) Now imagine there is a huge piece of paper directly beneath you. Now have everyone write the upper case alphabet with the “marker”. Go through letter by letter and really move those hips. Most people start off timid but but get into it by the time you get to the fun letters like S, W, and Q. Try it, seriously. You won’t make it through without giggling. It may not look “professional” but its certainly more fun and interesting than jumping jacks, shaking, or jogging in place. Kids love it… And I’m basically a big kid too!

    • I can’t READ this without giggling. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jessica Bearak

    Joan, I loved your post (and am now trying to figure out when I will have an opportunity to use your non-ice breaker ice breaker), but even more so I loved reading your bio. It’s been great to get to know you professionally through your other posts, but the glimpse into your personal life was meaningful as well. I am grateful to Seth Rosen for introducing me to your blog and insights.

    • Jessica.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post and the bio. And as for Seth, I am grateful to him for many many things.. Thanks for reading and sharing.

  • Brenda Clevenger

    That is the BEST bio I’ve ever read. Thanks for sharing it and your terrific non-ice breaker, ice breaker.

    • So glad you enjoyed it. It really does tend to bring out humor, creativity and honesty in others. Cheers!

  • Kelly Schnur

    This is fantastic! I can’t wait to have the opportunity to use your non-ice breaker ice breaker! Thank you so much for sharing your own personal bio…it really helps those of us who haven’t met you personally get a little picture of who you are.

  • Even before I download your (oh so personal) “no-longer-secret don’t-call-it-an-ice breaker” ice breaker, I am, once again, bowled over by your genius and creativity when it comes to the remarkable and essential work that you do! But, I have to run and read it RIGHT NOW!!!

    AND, you can count on me using it at the earliest opportunity, and forever thereafter. You are truly a blessing to nonprofits. Shukran, Grazie, Merci beaucoup, To’dah raba, Gracias, Salamat, Danke Schoen…

  • David Fielding

    We are so fortunate to have found your post! Thank you for sharing yourself so completely. Can’t wait to use your ideas with our Board at our retreat next month!

    • I am so delighted you believe it will be helpful. Hope you’ll add a comment about how it went.

  • Conor Dawley

    What a great non-ice ice breaker. We have a retreat coming up and I’m really excited to try this out. We were trying to come up with ways to process all of this information, especially with common themes. Do you have any suggestions on questions to ask or things to focus on when doing this?

  • David Fielding

    Just wanted to thank you again for this wonderful idea! We used it at our Board Retreat yesterday and it was fabulous. It galvanized the group, we had great fun (no tears but many laughs) and set the mood for a highly productive & engaged retreat. It was brilliant!

  • Pika Pilar

    Hi Joan! I am a new board member for a women’s chamber of commerce and have taken on the task of planning a board retreat. I plan on using your bio book idea! I love it. Can I use your bio as the sample to get the ladies on-board and in the right frame of mind when they are writing theirs? Thank you for this site! It is a treasure trove of ideas and tips that I will be integrating into my life on the board!