Yale Retreat Handover Doc
Special thanks to Aaron Gertler for edits and Alex Barry for sharing his Cambridge retreat handover which I originally based this off of.
Yale ’18-’19 Retreat Handover Doc
This post is an adapted version of Yale Effective Altruism’s handover document for retreats, which we pass down to new retreat organizers. It describes our experience putting on semester retreats in Fall ’18, Spring ‘19, and Fall ’19. Additionally, it provides timelines, lessons learned, materials lists, and other resources that groups can use as they plan retreats of their own. This handover is written in sections as to be easily referenced when planning. It is not necessarily meant to be read from top to bottom and does not read as one continuous post. This post is written in the spirit of sharing resources, and we don’t intend to make claims about how best to run retreats. Therefore, please take all recommendations with a grain of salt.
I believe this document will be most useful for university groups in the US who are running retreats that are lower budget than most professional organization retreats but hopefully some of the advice and lessons learned can extend beyond that. I think this document could be particularly helpful for university groups who are running one of their first retreats. An organization or city retreat will most likely require a higher budget and significantly more preparation and materials.
Our retreats seem to have increased the dedication of our members and the strength of Yale’s EA community (based on qualitative data), and our members rate them as highly valuable even months later, in our end-of-semester survey. Therefore, we encourage other groups to try them and hope to share what we have learned so far.
We are still exploring how best to run university group retreats. We have not tested too many variations and thus can’t compare what we have done to other practices. We appreciate feedback and suggestions on how to improve future retreats.
If you have any questions about retreat planning, or anything else group-related, feel free to reach out to email@example.com.
Yale EA has put on 3 retreats for its core members. We define “core members” as including, but not limited to, board members, past fellows, and regular attendees. Both of our Fall retreats were one night long, and our Spring retreat was two nights. We had around 18 attendees at each retreat. We have picked Airbnbs that are less than 60 miles from campus as venues. All of our transportation to and from venues has been via Lyft. During the retreats we have had structured activities during the day then socializing(/afterparty) in the evenings. These retreats have been run as a mix of EA education and fun community building with a focus on community building.
These have been our goals in the past
Improve Community Health
Increase sense of YEA community and provide connections
Integrate newer members
Increase dedication to EA
Get everyone excited and motivated for the next semester
Move more members deeper into the funnel per the funnel model of community building
Increase learning of EA concepts
Resolve confusion or uncertainty about EA concepts while dispelling myths: increasing the fidelity of our message, especially in the realm of earning to give and talent constraints.
Discuss careers and career planning
*This is my realistic timeline—an ideal one would have all of these done even further in advance
Apply for CEA funding
~2 months in advance (absolutley no later than 1 month in advance):
Make a copy of this checklist in a planning document
Start advertising to core members
Send a general-interest survey to see what date would work best and to see if there are recommendations for activities/discussions/talks for the program and if anyone would be wanting to lead one of these.
Pick a date
Figure out a rough idea of numbers
Search for an Airbnb
Book a venue
~1.5 months in advance :
Make signup form and advertise it to core members.
Start working on itinerary/agenda
~1 month in advance:
Send a big push to core members
Have at least a general outline for your itinerary/agenda
Make sure everyone knows what activities they are leading
~2 weeks in advance
Deadline for sign-ups—collect payments
Send out pre-retreat survey
Plan food for retreat and order ahead of time
Plan where people are sleeping—get OKs
Look for extra bedding (air mattresses/ cots/ sleeping bags)
Check that people leading activities are on track
Reserve a DSLR camera for the group photo (Our library rents out media equipment that we use)
~ 1 week in advance
Send the itinerary out and make sure everyone knows when they are leaving
Get a confirmation from each person that they are going
Send packing list
Order supermarket delivery with all food, drink and supplies etc. for the retreat.
Send last reminder email and make sure everyone knows when they are leaving and with which group
Do a check of supplies (games, cables, print-outs)
Host at least one event (a social dinner, a discussion group, etc.) to cement dedication
We have spent some time thinking about how many people we would like to attend our retreats and what kind of audience we are going for. This allows us to all be on the same page when advertising and to craft specific goals for the retreat.
After 3 retreats this is what we have come to recommend to our new retreat organizers
Number of nights: One
One night is probably sufficient to achieve our goals, especially since we have two retreats per year. However, we try to get to the venue as early as possible on the first day and leave as late as possible the second This usually means that we need to send messages asking the Airbnb hosts if we can check in early/ check out late.
We did a two-night retreat in Spring ’18 but our survey results and verbal feedback showed that several members felt that two nights was too long for students and that they became uneasy about not doing schoolwork. I imagine this varies with the school/group. Many members of Yale EA are particularly busy and prefer to only miss one night. I also imagine that having more nights is probably a higher priority for groups that meet less often or have many people who do not know each other already.
Having only one night means that the schedule has needed to be more structured to pack everything in. It has been tempting to reduce the number of breaks as to add more content, but we have found that this leads to lower engagement overall. We have our schedules linked here.
Number of participants: Roughly 18
We believe that having significantly more than 20 participants would likely make the retreat feel less personal and would significantly increase the logistical challenges—e.g. finding a venue, having a large enough meeting room. However, we do not want to exclude eager members who may become very involved as a result of the retreat.
Target Audience: Board members, past fellows, and engaged community members.
We look for the 20 people at Yale who have the highest level of EA understanding and motivation to actively engage with our group throughout the semester.
We have found it important to not bring people with very rudimentary EA understanding or low level of EA inclination, as this will make the retreat less valuable for everyone. We want to start with a common baseline understanding. We suggest that new members attend one of our concepts workshops before going on the retreat.
We have found the closest to the start of semester the better since everyone has less work for their classes
We usually try to hold it on a 3-day weekend so people can catch up but we have to be cautious because many other groups have retreats these weekends as well
We think having it before the start of the semester would be risky because some people may have already booked flights. Having it before classes start would only be possible if planned and advertised very well in advance
The further we plan this in advance (and importantly: advertise in advance) the more likely it is that people plan for it and have fewer conflicts
Budget and Financing
This page goes over the funding application processes for CEA.
We have been playing around with our budgets, but it seems like asking for about $1,400 from CEA is a sweet spot
Fall ’19 Budget (one night retreat)
We ended up spending: Total = $ 1,660 - $250 (from members’ contributions) = $1410 (covered by CEA)
Fall ’18 Budget (one night retreat):
We ended up spending: Total = $1950 approx - $550 (from members contributions) = $1400 (covered by CEA)
Spring ’19 Budget (two night retreat):
CEA gave us $1,400 after we applied for a project proposal.
We ended up spending: Total $1600 approx - $1,400(from CEA) = 200 (covered by member contributions)
In the past we made the retreat fee be $50 per person for commitment and to cover extra costs. In Fall ’19 we lowered it to $25. This produced less financial burden on attendees, but we did not see any significant differences in attendance. I imagine we will raise member costs if we start to get nicer AirBNBs in the future where everyone can have a bed. We offer a pay what you can option for those who noted that the cost would be prohibitive.
Finding a Location
We have always found the locations for the retreat by looking on air bnb. We use it to search for all venues within 60 miles of campus that sleep the appropriate number of people (sorting sleeps high->low then scrolling past the ones that sleep too many seems like the easiest way). For each of the venues this would throw up, we would then look at each individually to see how well they fit the below criteria:
Our criteria have been:
Within 60ish miles of campus- the closer the better since lyfts are cheaper
Our first venue was probably too far away and in the middle of nowhere so lyfts were difficult and expensive to get.
At least 1:2 to 3:4 ratio beds:people
We have found that for our group we do not need a bed for every person. University students are usually okay with sleeping on the floor/ on couches and often do this on other group retreats. I think this is especially for one night retreats.
However, there are some people who strongly prefer beds and others who may want accommodations like being in a single gender room. We usually ask about this in the sign up form. In Fall ’19, 4 out of 17 attendees said that they were not ok not having a bed.
Our first venue ended up having more beds than we needed since some people stayed up late and fell asleep on couches etc.
Our second place probably could have used at least another bathroom and bed although many attendees were pleased with the accommodations. I would guess having a 1:3 ratio of bathrooms:people would be ideal.
Has at least one room large enough for everyone
Our second place would also be better if it had a bit more open area so that everyone could be in one place together comfortably. We had to squish together and there was not enough room for us all to play a game in a circle. There was also little seating in this room.
Ideally this room would have a large tv and hdmi cable
Has one large table/kitchen counter for catered food to be on
It is nice to have a dining table where everyone can sit but those are hard to find and people usually split up in conversation anyways. Just make sure everyone has somewhere to eat
Provides sufficient self-catering facilities to be able to cook for everyone in one kitchen or has restaurants/ takeout nearby
We have not cooked before because of time but it has been recommended by Cambridge EA in the past.
Having food in walking distance is really nice but you can also just get it delivered
Areas for socializing
It is nice to have an outside area available and nice places to walk. These are especially good for 1-1s
Our third venue counted being outside as loitering and threatened a high fee so everyone had to stay inside the entire time.
This can take some time and the best places are quickly booked so take that into consideration. Start months in advance!
We usually ask hosts:
About details not shown in pictures
I they have any extra cots or mattresses people can sleep on.
If we can change the check-in and check-out time. We are willing to pay an extra fee to have the earliest check-in and the latest check-out possible.
At the Fall ’19 retreat we spent a few hours outside in a park, which was nice but is weather dependent. If we want to do this again we should maybe find somewhere that is outside but covered, as in a big gazebo or something similar. Also, we learned that it is important to remember to bring water if meeting outside!
We use Lyft not Uber
We make car groups in advance
We set a time for leaving without someone if they are very late (after trying to contact them)
We don’t schedule lyfts ahead of time unless in rural area.
We try to get everyone there at the same time
We prefer to stay fairly close to campus as the rides are cheaper and lyfts are easier to come by. During our Fall ’18 retreat we were in a rural area and had a very difficult time getting lyfts back to campus which caused a lot of confusion. We typically use Lyft instead of Uber because it more environmentally friendly and often get XLs.
We have found it important to make sure to plan the groups going in each car in advance, not just groups going at the same time. For instance, if 9 people are leaving at the same time, we plan who will be in the 4 person car and who will be in the 5 person car. It may seem like you can just figure it out when calling the Lyfts but we have had a lot of problems with trying to sort this out last minute. This was necessary for leaving campus and getting back to campus. It seems like splitting a group of 15 or so people into cars would be simple but it can be confusing and frustrating if you are rushing it while trying to clear out the house (This happened on our Spring ’19 retreat and some people ended up leaving their belongings during the hustle and bustle). We think it is also good to plan who all will be calling the lyfts ahead of time as well.
We typically don’t schedule Lyfts ahead of time simply because people are sometimes unreliable and we don’t want to waste a car if someone is late. Especially since there is often a cancellation fee. Usually Lyfts pick us up pretty quickly, especially from campus. However, we do set a cutoff time for when we will leave without people.
However, if we end up with a venue in a more rural area, we prefer to schedule rides ahead of time since lyft availability can be hard to come by in those locations.
We have found it important to try really hard to get everyone there at the same time. At our Spring retreat we had a group go earlier than another but we did not want the second group to miss out on the actual content so we just did ice-breakers. The problem is that when the second group came we basically had to do all of those ice breakers again. So now when we have separate groups we plan an activity for the first group that we are okay with the second not doing.
Signup Form and Advertising
We invite board members, past fellows and dedicated community members
We make sure to ask about allergies, sleeping preferences, and scheduling in our sign-up form
We limit the number of new people
We email target groups far in advance and do personal outreach
Sample materials from previous retreats:
Must have info
We make sure to have this info for every attendee before leaving:
We talk to people with allergies to find out how severe they are and find out if we need to change anything about how we are serving food. (ie: Cook sesame bagels in a different place than other bagels)
Cell phone number
What time they can leave campus
What time they need to be back on campus
Okay with sharing a bed?
Okay with rooming with other genders?
Okay with not having a bed?
Who we invite
We always make sure to invite board members, past fellows and dedicated community members (have done a concepts workshop or have attended many events).
We try to limit the number of people who we do not already know well. While there may be someone who becomes very involved, we prefer not to spend too much time and money on someone who never comes to another event. We have had this happen before when we allowed very new people to come. We have found that everyone having a similar knowledge base in EA (have done the fellowship or a concepts workshop) is very important so that we can dive deeper into more difficult topics. Inviting new people tends to lower the quality of discussions.
Additionally, we found that it is nice if everyone knows at least one other person but not everyone. This way people are at least comfortable with someone but have plenty of people to meet.
How We Advertise
We send out an email ahead of time to these target groups and post in our community group Facebook page. Before we do any large advertising details are approved by the executive team.
Direct messaging on Facebook or through text or talking in person have been the best ways for us to get attendees. We try and make sure to send out a personalized message to everyone in these main groups. For our Fall ’19 retreat we split up a list of dedicated members amongst our executive team for personalized messaging.
Since our retreats are right after breaks it can be more difficult to reach people. Last summer we had some skype calls with members and past fellows just to check up on them and would plug the retreat during the conversation. I think this worked out fairly well and would recommend doing it again if you can. Checking in before the start of a semester can be a good way to make sure people stay involved/ know if they don’t want to stay involved.
We build in extra time
We clean before the final fun activity
We semi-randomly pair people for dinners and 1-1s
We always start with a lot of ice breakers
We try and make sure that everyone arrives at the same time
We have nightly surveys only for multi-night retreats
We offer several discussion topics and split into small groups
We like to have a sprinting session to plan discussion groups and socials for the semester
Here are our manuals with schedules:
We have found that it is important to build in extra time and be flexible since things always run late or have hold-ups. We make sure to build in breaks so it is not exhausting but have found that we can get away with a denser schedule for a one-night retreat than a two-night retreat. The Spring ’19 Retreat may have had a bit too much free time.
Here are some resources we refer to when planning gatherings -
Planning an arc
We try and build up to a climax (usually bonding games at the afterparty) and also end on a good note, since people usually remember how they felt at the end. We found it helpful to make people clean up before lunch on the last day so that they clean quicker and then we can have a nice fun final activity after lunch. This way, cleaning won’t be the last thing people remember. Another option which we might steal from MIRI/CFAR is to have periodic 2-minute tidys where everyone stops and cleans for 2 minutes .
Putting people together
We have had a lot of success with randomly or semi-randomly making groups for dinner and partners for 1-1 walks. We let people know their groups and give them a discussion sheet that they can start from but do not need to follow. We have found it necessary to stress what time people need to be back from 1-1s.
We have found it important to really fill the start with icebreakers and ways to get to know each other.
Some icebreakers we have done before:
A name game where you say what you would bring to a deserted island that starts with the first letter of your name and have to say all the names previously said.
Honey do you love me (make sure to set boundaries ie: no touching)
Two truths and a lie (might need to split into groups)
EA charades (we just use common EA terms, organizations, and or people)
We have found that the start of the retreat can be really awkward without these icebreakers.
Additionally our Spring survey showed that some people really enjoyed sharing personal stories. We don’t want to force anyone to share if they don’t want to but creating games that incentivize sharing have been good. Unrivaled is a board game that we have used for this.
For the spring retreat we had people fill out a quick survey each night. This was mostly so that we could fix any ongoing problems. I think this can be really useful but probably not necessary for a 1 night retreat. It seems instead like it might be a good idea to have an anonymous feedback survey that they can fill out at anytime. If you do nightly surveys in the future we will add “What is something you learned today?”, “What is something you found useful today?”, and “What is something you changed your mind about today?”
In our Spring survey people said that they wanted more focused discussions (ie: more focused than just community building or x-risk). In our Fall ’19 retreat we offered three different discussion topics and had people split into groups.
We use this to advertise our discussion group. Here is our google folder with planning documents for our regular discussion group.
In our Spring ’19 retreat we did one sprinting session to plan the discussion groups and socials for the rest of the semester. I found this to be super productive but there were some hiccups (see below). I think using this time to get a full plan for the semester (when discussions will be and when socials will be) is really useful. Limiting to these topics is also good because they are relevant to everyone not just board members.
Problems we have encountered with sprinting:
Sprinting at our Fall ’19 retreat was scheduled for pretty late at night and thus people were very low on energy. In the future we plan to make sure that there is an energizing activity before sprinting.
At our Spring ’19 retreat we split into two groups—one for discussion groups and one for socials. This led to some people who had thought a lot about the discussion group missing out on contributing since they went to the socials sprinting session.
Pre and Post Retreat Survey
We have found it imperative that a specific time is set aside to fill these out
One-on-Ones, dinner discussion groups, a section on movement building, and a section on talking about EA were ranked the most valuable.
The retreat as a whole was reported as valuable by members even months later in our end of semester survey
We are working on improving our surveying practices. We know that we must take these results with a grain of salt because of small n sizes and potential error. Additionally there are many methodological errors when running and evaluating these surveys simply because we do not have the capacity to run full tests. However, we can use theses to notice general trends. We find that the comment portions are typically more helpful than the numeric portions
These are our most robust results since we set aside a time where we made everyone take the survey
We had pretty marginal changes in reported feelings about the community and careers but saw a larger increase in people’s likelihood to read outside content.
The after-party ranked highest on enjoyment
Our final circle where we gave people shout-outs, talked about things we were grateful for, and talked about EA in our own lives was ranked the highest on value.
Tied for second highest in value were One-on-Ones, dinner discussion groups, and a section on movement building and talking about EA.
Our career workshop was ranked lowest in enjoyment
This was not planned very far in advance
Our discussion group on x-risk was ranked lowest in value
We tried to have one discussion with everyone which ended up being far too many people and a much too broad of a subject.
Had very positive comments
In our community survey at the end of the semester which is several months after the retreat :
77% said the retreat was valuable or very valuable
15% said it was moderately valuable
8% hadn’t attended the retreat
Unfortunately, we had a mishap that led to there not being set aside time for filling out the survey. This led to a very small sample size. However, those who did fill it out were very thorough in their suggestions for the future.
People really liked the food (Indian food)
Our session on talking about EA was ranked the most valuable. During this we read up on ways to introduce EA and then played a game where we practiced talking about it
One-on-ones were ranked the most enjoyable
Sprinting was lowest on enjoyment
See notes from sprinting section
Our section on sustainability and mental health was ranked lowest on value
This might be because we have done this section several times before
Food and Drink
We have only vegan food and have not had complaints about this
We order catering and grocery delivery well in advance
Chinese food can be a good option as it usually is enough for both lunch and dinner
We err on the side of having too many snacks, drinks, and food
Example shopping list for two night retreat
Type of food
In the past we have made a great effort in only serving vegan food (the only slip ups were due to not planning food in advance). We have not had any complaints about it all being vegan and have even had some people switch to veganism after the retreat. However, we ask if anyone needs serious food accommodations and to work with them.
We found that it is very important to at least know your order if not ordering in advance. Even if you know the resturaunt you should also know your exact order. We have had a few slip ups where the person in charge of food did not actually do this and ended up scrambling to figure out what to order at the retreat. Now we check ahead of time to make sure that this has been done and do not assume that it has been.
Chinese takeout has been a big winner in the past. We usually order an entree for almost everyone and a lot of vegetable fried rice. We found tofu and vegetable fried rice to be the most popular. However, when ordering tofu and vegetables we have to make sure to get a confirmation that there is actually tofu in it because we have several times just gotten vegetables. This usually provides enough food for dinner and leftovers for lunch.
For the spring retreat we ordered some catering from this place and just ordered what the restaurant recommended for 18 people and it was not enough so plan to order extra. During this retreat we also ordered Indian food but discovered that the naan and vegetable samosas there were not vegan.
We like to use grocery delivery services for groceries and snacks but found that we must order these well in advance.For the Spring retreat we tried tried to order two days in advance and there were none available. Now, I recommend people to order it at least a week in advance and really staying on-top of whose job it is to make sure they have done it.
In terms of general principles however, we err on the end of having too much food, since we don’t want to run out of any specific thing. If leftovers are non-perishable we use them at future social events. If they are perishable we usually distribute them amongst members. The Cambridge retreat handover that I based this one off of recommends 4000 calories per person per day of food.
Snacks and Drinks
We try to have plenty of snacks etc. available the rest of the time along with tea and coffee and a range of vegan creamer and milk. Fruit has been a good option as well as chips and popcorn. Individually packaged things can be easier for people to grab and go.
Here is our shopping list from the two-night Spring retreat with some extra things we needed/wanted
We have found it necessary to plan exact sleeping arrangements before the retreat rather than letting people decide on their own.
Yale EA members are usually ok sharing beds or sleeping on couches.
We have had a lot of problems with sleeping arrangements in the past when we did not assign people beds. Typically people are absolutely fine with sharing a queen sized bed but have a difficult time finding someone to share it with if this is not pre-assigned. This has led to some people sleeping in less comfortable places because they did not arrange a bed to share beforehand.
For the Fall 2019 retreat 2 out of 17 participants requested to be in a single gender room.
I have recommended this procedure for future retreats:
Find out on the sign-up form who is okay with sharing beds
Individually message people asking who they are okay with sharing a bed with
Put post-it notes on the doors and beds with names or at lease room numbers
In the past I thought I could just tell people to “Go to the room with the queen bed” but people didn’t know bed sizes and went to the wrong rooms.
Usually Yale EA members have been super understanding and accommodating when it comes to sleeping arrangements. For a one-night retreat people have been much more okay with sleeping on the floor and random places. Still to make sure that a couch does not end up empty with people on the floor we sometimes make a sheet with all of the available comfy spots and send it out through the group chat—having people choose a place to sleep. I tried to do this on paper and pass it around but it did not work out very well. I think an online form would be easier in the future. Another option is to assign these places as well.
Several days or so before the retreat we send another email containing all the information that was in the survey, the manual, where to meet, what to bring, and other relevant information. We also invite people to fill out a give&take spreadsheet. Here people can read a description of attendees and see what they can help others with/ would like help with.
What attendees should pack
Here is the packing list from our Spring retreat:
Sleeping bag or other thing to sleep in/under
Toothbrush and paste
Soaps and shampoos
Clothing might be useful
A set of attire/shoes suitable for light physical activity
Supplies for note-taking (pens, pencils, notepads)
Any personal medication
Cell phone + charger
Laptop + charger (not essential, but may be good to have)
Cards or multi-player board games!
Your happy, intelligent, caring self!
Also depending on the time of year people might want to bring extra warm gloves (for snowball fights!) or a bathing suit.
Actually running the retreat
We have found it necessary to plan exact sleeping arrangements before the retreat rather than letting people decide on their own.
Yale EA members are usually ok sharing beds or sleeping on couches.
When we first get there we make sure to put post its notes for sleeping arrangements on the doors and to orient ourselves with the place. While the organizer does this others have helped put away the delivered food and drinks.
Afterwards we pass out name tags and give everyone a tour of the place and establish a common naming scheme for the different group spaces. For instance one place might be “the living room”, one might be “the green room” etc. This way when you tell people to go to certain places they know what you are talking about. We have also found it important to make sure everyone knows where the bathrooms are.
We have played around with different ways to open the retreat. Last Spring I printed out the CEA Guiding Principles and went through them with everyone—having different people read them and then hang them somewhere. We also use this time to have an intro talk where we set boundaries and make sure everyone knows what to do if they ever need anything or feel uncomfortable (for us this is talking to the organizers or filling out the anonymous feedback form). We found it necessary to spell out rules at beginning even ones we thought are obvious such as “don’t go on other people’s property”. One time we had some people walk into the neighbors lawn during their 1-1 which upset the neighbor. Besides that, I am a big fan of the pac-man rule and try to have everyone practice it.
In the future we might have a session at the start with a group activity about why people are there and what they hope to get out of the retreat.
Other lessons learned
We have found it useful to have everyone on a single Facebook group chat so that we can easily send out messages and documents and people can ask questions.
Yale EA members are usually very helpful but have to explicitly be told what to do. Ideally we will have someone in the future who can explain clearly what all needs to be done (ie: not just “clean up the food” but “rinse the dishes” or “put extras in the fridge”)
We have found that we need to have a time set aside towards the end of the retreat to fill out the post-retreat survey. This makes sure that everyone actually fills it out.
We have not done formal write-ups on our workshops yet but I am adding links to resources that we use for them. Our concepts workshop is much more complete than our several attempts at career workshops.
We have added speaker notes for each slide, which could greatly help you determine what to discuss.
We also link to a “workbook,” on the first slide.
Most people were already familiar with 80k so this was a bit more advanced. We walked through 80k’s career planning guide.
From a study break we had but is sometimes used in retreats
Packing List for Organizers
Table cloths or big towels ( put on top of anything that can stain such as the air bnbs table clothes and especially carpet during the party)
Printed out Manuals
Nice camera for group photo
Pens and pencils
Something big to write on
Any printed materials for activities
Ideally would be sleep masks, ear plugs, extra toothbrush/toothpaste
All food and drinks (see food and drinks)
First aid kit
Extra toilet paper