Opinion
July 15, 2015

Who Should Foot the Bill at a Nonprofit Retreat?

There is always angst around the topic of money with nonprofit boards and volunteers. (I will not be discussing sex, drugs, or rock and roll in this article, which can also be quite anxiety producing.)

My question to you is: Are you asking board members and volunteers to chip in what they can for meetings? This can include airfare, hotel, meals, the shared cost of consultants, venues, and so forth.

First figure out what the board meeting or volunteer experience is costing your organization. For instance, for a board retreat off-site, including a consultant’s time, food, and other expenses — and this doesn’t even include the value of the staff time involved — the cost might easily be $350 per person for a board of 15. Some trustees might not be able to pay. But if you don’t ask, nobody will pay.

Be prepared to defend the value of your retreat.

I’ve found that attendance goes up using this method.

Three examples:

I go to a nonprofit Unitarian Retreat Center in New Hampshire every year. It has all kinds of interesting programs and fabulous children’s programming with excellent volunteer teachers. The teachers and their significant others receive the week’s room and board for free. Some volunteer teachers are of modest means, some are quite affluent. They are never asked to pay anything.

I am lobbying for the volunteer teachers to be asked if they would like to pay 25 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent, all, or none of their expenses. Whatever works for the teacher should be respected and honored.

Some people say the teachers are giving their time so should not be asked for money. I say a resounding, “Baloney!” Asking respectfully and in a private manner is always OK. Remember, 82 percent of volunteers are donors.

The second example is of a social-service organization in the Midwest. The board president shared with the board that she wanted to do something creative with the annual retreat but had few ideas and less money. One of the board members who had just sold his company for megabucks offered to fly everyone to Florida in a private plane and offered to hold the retreat at his new McMansion. Not surprisingly, there was 100-percent attendance.

I learned another technique for asking board members to pitch in for overhead when I worked with an HIV/AIDs organization years ago. I loved the way these trustees handled money. They met at a restaurant. They paid for dinner and got the back room for free.

The deal was this: You ordered what you wanted, the treasurer announced what the average was, and people threw in as much cash as they could. Some people had lots of money and would throw in two or three times their portion, some people were on disability and living quite marginally and would throw in what they would have spent on a meal at home.

The bill was always covered, and frequently there was money left over for a special treat at another meeting, such as a cake to celebrate a birthday or other milestone.

Let the board member or volunteer decide whether he or she wants to cover the expenses. It is assumed that with most mission trips, volunteers, even teenagers, have to cover their expenses. Why not ask your board and volunteers to do the same?

The bottom line is: Just ask. Be clear. Be gracious. Be respectful.

Carol Weisman, president of Board Builders, is a speaker, author, trainer, and consultant for nonprofit groups.