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.

HERE’S WHY MOST ICE BREAKERS STINK

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?

Nope.

DO WE EVEN NEED ICE BREAKERS IN THE FIRST PLACE?

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.

RELATED POST: NONPROFIT RETREATS THE RIGHT WAY

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.

JOAN’S FOOLPROOF “DON’T-CALL-IT-AN-ICE BREAKER” ICE BREAKER FOR A NONPROFIT RETREAT

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.

BUT EVERYONE HATES ICE BREAKERS. HOW DO YOU GET PEOPLE TO ACTUALLY DO THIS?

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.

BONUS: MY OWN PERSONAL TWO-PAGE BIO

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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