10 Creative Ideas for Nonprofit Staff Retreats

by Joan Garry

These are stressful times! If you worry about staff burnout, here are 7 antidotes for you to try.

Nonprofit staff retreats are really important. They’re a chance to step away from your regular day-to-day stuff and focus on the bigger picture. To remove yourself from the normal distractions.

They are also a significant investment of time and energy (and sometimes money). You should plan them with intention and creativity, and engage the staff in the design.

Think about the best staff retreat you’ve ever attended. I bet there was some creativity thrown into the mix. That keeps things interesting.

So if you’re looking for some creative ideas for your next staff retreat, well, I’m here to help.

Do not worry for a nanosecond. No ropes courses or “let go and we’ll catch you” exercises to be found here.

Actually the help is not coming from me alone. I’ll offer a few, but I cannot take credit for all of them. I dropped into the Nonprofit Leadership Lab, my online membership site that supports board and staff leaders of small nonprofits around the world to ask for their creative ideas.

No surprise. They had some very, very good ones. These are very good people who are changing the world in ways large and small.

So here you go. Try a few of them on and see how they fit.


As I’ve written on this topic before, I’ll keep this short.

Take a look at these posts – Nonprofit Retreats the Right Way and this one for boards (there are strong parallels) – A Powerful Board Retreat.

These 10 creative staff retreat ideas reflect what I consider to be the four most important components of any retreat:

  1. Bringing the work into the room
  2. Turning staff / board from a collection of individuals into a group or team
  3. Joy
  4. Appreciation

Ok, suspense no longer…


1 – A Foolproof Icebreaker You Cannot Call An Icebreaker

It requires homework that everyone will groan about and then totally dig. Read all about it here. I can’t tell you how often people write me to affirm the superlative “foolproof.” It’s an autobiography exercise. Don’t miss downloading my own autobiography at the end of the post.

2 – The Soundtrack of Our Lives

This one comes courtesy of Lab member Robin Adelson from The Jefferson Awards Foundation. Her organization honors community service and volunteerism. Everyone submits the name of a song. The only prompt: This song represents the soundtrack of my life. Someone creates a Spotify (or your favorite music streaming service) playlist that either provides background music for dinner or a break or you can make a game of it and have folks guess whose song is whose. Thanks to music streaming services, this is so easy to do and both fun and insightful.

3 – Word Clouds in Frames

Thanks to Melissa Ferrari of Heart Share St Vincent’s for this creative idea. Have the group generate a list of words that best exemplify the impact or values of your organization. Maybe phrases from clients. As an appreciation, create a Word Cloud using Wordle to create a nice visual and then have the image framed for people’s desks.

This could also be a nice closing moment of appreciation. Ask for the words ahead of time, create the word clouds, buy inexpensive frames and at the ‘closing circle’ give one to each participant as a token of your appreciation.

4 – Magical Moments

This one comes courtesy of my teammate, Lindsay Hoffman and her exploration of a technique called “appreciative inquiry”. The focus? What are you doing really well? How can you identify the core components of that success so you can replicate it? At a retreat, go deeper than listing what you do well. Use Lindsay’s question, “Describe a moment in your organization when you thought – this is IT. This is why we do what we do. That spectacular moment, that magical moment.” Capture that moment and then dig deep. What were the elements, choices, and context that brought you there? Then talk about how to infuse them in your work. It’s a smart exercise and powerfully inspiring.

5 – Out With The Old

This one works best if your retreat site has any kind of body of water nearby. During the Jewish High Holidays there is a ritual called Tashlikh, literally meaning “cast off.” I’ll admit – I grabbed this tradition to apply at a retreat. Often a retreat is an opportunity to set a new course or reboot. The literal casting off of whatever you feel is holding you back can be quite powerful. The Jewish tradition leans a bit more toward sins but in the retreat version, you grab a piece of driftwood or a rock and toss it with all your might into the ocean or lake. While heaving the rock, say something out loud so that the group knows what you are putting behind you. I did this once on a very windy spring day with a leadership team of eight. We got the trifecta of retreat emotions: tears, laughter and inspiration.

6 – Bring the Work To Life: Dinner with Clients

Shawna McMahon runs Immanuel Community Services in Seattle and she understands that the key to keeping the flame of motivation burning bright is to make sure the staff and board “touch the work” regularly. The evening before a full day retreat, Shawna brought the group to join clients for dinner to appreciate and understand the work and the individuals touched by that work in a deeper way.

7 – Cooking

Carrie Ostrea fights for a cure to a rare genetic disease – NGLY1. For staff retreats she recommends cooking and I second this whole-heartedly. In fact, it works best if you can have someone host the retreat with a kitchen. The entire group plans the menu and tasks are assigned. Don’t go crazy with the menu. There is nothing like a group eating a meal everyone participated in making.

8 – Escape Room

Kate Conrad from The Community Coalition of Haiti recommends an Escape Room activity. Don’t design a team building exercise – Escape Rooms do all the work for you. Anyone who has ever done one learns about the strengths of their teammates. They learn that leadership comes in all different forms and there tends to be a ton of laughing.

9 – Replicate Virtual Communication

Develop some kind of activity in which staff members are divided into teams and have to accomplish it together without being in the same room. You can only use email. One project completed by a team that is not co-located.

10 – The Story Behind Your Name

I found this to be a very powerful post-dinner, “sit around with the beverage of your choice” activity. No set up is needed. You might want to use a timer so folks don’t go on and on.

Talk about the origin of your full name. That is the only prompt. You learn about the person’s origin story, something about parent(s), cultural heritage. This can be powerful and really funny (our own Lindsay Hoffman was named after a 70s actor named Lindsay Wagner who played the Bionic Woman – I laugh every time I think about it.)


You’ve now gotten 10 ideas. Perhaps you will like one or more or they will generate other ideas. Nonprofit leaders are hungry for great retreat ideas. So don’t keep them to yourself. Share them in the comments below.