Felicia Willow

Jan 11, 2022, 10:00 AM

Crucial planning opportunity or annual waste of time? Five top tips for successful away days

One of the red flags I come across all too often in my work with charities is when someone tells me that they don’t value away days. Upon a little more enquiry, I get one or more of the following comments:

“Oh, it was a fun day at the time. Lots of exciting talk and ideas. But it was really just a waste of time as nothing happened next.”

“We didn’t bother with a professional facilitator. Our CEO has done that kind of thing before so they just ran it themselves.”

“We got a free away day with our HR package.”

“The Trustees had one but the staff team weren’t invited. Away Days aren’t seen as something for us.”

As these comments illustrate, do an away day badly and you risk your efforts backfiring. You risk making the wrong decisions and setting the wrong path. You risk damaging relationships and trust. And you risk setting up your charity to fail.

Do your away days well, on the other hand, and they can be hugely beneficial. For a charity that is thriving, away days can set exciting pathways for the future. For a charity in crisis, they can bring the organisation back to its values, help to overcome relationship barriers and set a course for stability.

So here are my five top tips for running constructive away days:


1 Have a clear outcome in mind

Make sure you’re extremely clear on what you are aiming to achieve by holding an away day. You might want to kickstart a new strategic planning process, team build your Board or SLT, or develop a Theory of Change, for example.

You need to be reasonable as to what can be achieved in a day. A crisis won’t be resolved, but an initial plan to respond to that crisis can be. A Theory of Change won’t be completely finalised, but you can get a huge amount of work done on it. Your strategic plan won’t be ready to go to the printers, but you can go away with some key results and next steps to take.


2 Hire an external facilitator

When I’m in one of my regular interim CEO roles, I never run my own away days, even though I’m a professional facilitator and do this for other charities on a regular basis.

A facilitator’s job is to get other people to think, to engage and to discuss. If a facilitator turns up with their own motives, it simply does not work. They will find themselves bouncing around between contributing and facilitating and will struggle to do either competently.

Saving the pennies on an external facilitator is a false economy, which is not worth the risk of compromising the outcome of your away day.


3 Hire the right facilitator – and think about how much you want them to do

Facilitators don’t tend to come in a one-size-fits-all model. You need to make sure the person you hire aligns with your charity’s approach, culture and specific situation. As a facilitator, that’s important to me too. Ensuring my approach is going to work for any particular group is a big part of whether the day will be a success.

Free facilitation might seem like a nice perk when money is tight, but what you’ll find is that they will do minimal prep work, will turn up and run the day however they please and then you’ll never see them again. In essence – it’s a counter productive waste of time. So, thinking about what else a facilitator can do to make your away day successful is also essential.

Facilitators can usually offer a lot beyond the day itself. This might include helping you to prepare for your away day to ensure the greatest impact, writing up notes, reports or draft plans afterwards or helping you to take forward your next steps.


4 Invite the right people

This one comes up most often with strategic planning away days, where you see Trustee Boards launch into a strategic plan without enough staff involvement. This rarely results in a good plan.

It comes back to point 1: what are you trying to achieve? If you can answer that question clearly, you should be able to identify who should be in the room.

Sometimes a good approach is to invite key staff for the morning session, then hold a Board only session in the afternoon. Other times, you might wish to set a series of away days involving different groups, who feed into different parts of the process.


5 Have a clear plan about what happens next

Away days that result in no action are a letdown for your staff and undermine their faith in the planning process. Away days should always lead to something concrete.

Set out clear next steps by the end of the day and share notes from the day with all attendees. Then make sure those next steps actually happen!

Personally, I love away days. I love facilitating them and, when they’re done right, I enjoy attending them. I find it inspiring to see staff and Trustees get away from the day-to-day and invest time in thinking and planning for the future, building their relationships and finding common ground.

Follow these tips to get your away days right and your teams will love them too.

For help with planning and facilitating an away day, please call 01737 814758 or email office@actionplanning.co.uk

Andrew Johnson

Felicia Willow is a Charity Consultant and Interim CEO who specialises in charitable governance, strategic planning and crisis management. In addition to her facilitation work running away days, she has held seven charity leadership appointments, taking charities through transformational change to achieve success.