Creating a Strong Onboarding Process for Nonprofit Executives

Creating a Strong Onboarding Process for Nonprofit Executives

Creating a Strong Onboarding Process for Nonprofit Executives

Every day we witness the amazing impact nonprofit organizations make as they address social and environmental issues and support our communities. If these organizations are to thrive, however, they require capable and compassionate leaders. In addition to implementing a detailed executive search process, establishing an effective onboarding process is essential to ensuring new nonprofit executives are armed with the knowledge, skills, and network connections they need to succeed.

Organizations spend significant time, money, and energy on securing talented executives, and it is imperative to see the recruiting process through to the end. If incoming executives are not supported and oriented properly through a structured onboarding process, it can lead to problems and unnecessary roadblocks down the line, no matter how qualified and competent an incoming leader may be. Although this process is unique to each organization, what follows are a few basic elements to remember when reviewing (or creating) your organization’s formal onboarding program.

The Basic Elements of an Onboarding Program

Before we begin, it is important to note that an onboarding process is not simply a welcome celebration. While the latter (and other activities in that same vein) are indeed important for camaraderie, they are separate from onboarding, which is completely focused on setting up the new executive for success. Onboarding supports the executive’s work on the organization’s priorities and launches the incoming leader into their role so that they are able to come up to speed and efficiently begin their work to make valuable contributions that support organizational outcomes.

Involving Board and Leadership

Although it is tempting for board members and hiring committees to be “done” with their responsibilities once a new executive has been offered a role, this could not be farther from the truth. Per a report from the Bridgespan Group, “The number one responsibility of any board—for-profit or nonprofit—is the management of the senior executive. Dozens of governance books drive this point home. Yet, when we talk with nonprofit leaders, it’s simply not their experience. Nearly half (46%) of the 214 CEOs responding to a recent Bridgespan Group survey reported getting little or no help from their boards when first taking on the position.” As one executive director shared, “The board essentially said, ‘We’re glad you’re here. Here are the keys. We’re tired.”

In addition to fatigue, boards often (and thoughtfully, I might add) strive diligently not to over-step or micromanage their incoming executive by being too hands-on with the onboarding process. Conversely, new executive leaders may refrain from asking for help or clarification to appear more competent at the role they just proved throughout the interview process that they were qualified for. While these are valid points to consider, it is important to put them aside nonetheless and place the good of the organization ahead of fatigue, worry, or ego. Executive transitions are a crucial time for nonprofit boards to engage at a higher level than they have previously.

Boards and leaders should collaboratively establish a leadership agenda, wherein the organization’s priorities are clarified, and each priority item is complete with action plans, roles, and milestones. Gaps in organizational capacity should be identified as well. Building this agenda is a dynamic process. It is continuously evolving as the executive learns more about the organization and its stakeholders and as the board assesses how this leader can guide the organization into the future.

Prioritizing Strategic Development Over Day-to-Day Challenges

During the early months of onboarding, board members and fellow executives should continue to cover day-to-day areas of the job. This allows the incoming leader to fully comprehend the organization’s inner workings, foster stakeholder relationships, and continue developing the leadership agenda. By clearing space for the new leader to focus on these unique-in-time concerns, incoming executives are given the opportunity to fully participate in their own education and onboarding rather than being distracted by the day-to-day fires that pop up when running an organization. They will have plenty of time for that soon enough.

Clearly Establishing Roles

A frequent point of contention between nonprofit boards and executives is each group’s roles. During the onboarding process, as the newly selected executive reviews board functions and reporting agreements, it is critical to hold transparent conversations that clearly define the roles and “lanes” of board members and executives. Not only will this help to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks, but it will also prevent frustration from both parties down the line. These conversations should include setting expectations and goals for the new executive’s role. Establishing KPIs early and ensuring the executive understands how their success will be measured is essential to remain focused and aligned with the organization’s strategic goals.

Establishing a calendar of onboarding activities is only helpful if things are not being constantly canceled or ignored. Thus, it is the responsibility of all parties involved to not let meetings and handshakes with stakeholders and staff alike slide or get lost in the shuffle. Everyone is busy, and there is never a “good” time for these meetings; however, that does not mean that they are not critical and must happen, nonetheless.

Fostering Stakeholder Relationships

Strong relationships with stakeholders are the backbone of any nonprofit. Support the new executive by introducing them to key stakeholders and encouraging relationship building both externally and internally. Create channels for them to connect with peers in their field through professional associations, attending events, traveling as part of listening sessions, and more. Such connections will prove far more valuable than your new executive spending the time putting out fires or perusing through a Dropbox folder.

A robust onboarding process is crucial for the success of incoming chief executives and leads to huge dividends down the line. A supported leader feels more connected to the organizational culture and mission earlier on and is, therefore, better equipped to have a healthy and collaborative relationship with the Board of Directors. Additionally, this positive foundation leads to happier employees, decreased board turnover, and better relationships with external stakeholders. A structured and purposeful onboarding process sets the stage for nonprofit leaders to make a meaningful impact in their roles and prioritizes the mission of the organization over the day-to-day fires that are so easy to get lost in. This time is unique and a rare opportunity for those involved to truly reset and refocus all energies on the mission and vision. Prioritize onboarding, tailor the process to your organization’s culture, and dive into the experienceit will make all the difference in the long run.

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About the Author

Bailey Olderog, Technical Writer (she/her/hers)

Bailey Olderog brings her passion for storytelling and language to her role as technical writer at Scion Executive Search (SES). She is dedicated to telling the stories of others, and it has been her lifelong effort to make contributions that ensure that even the quietest of voices are heard.

Bailey has spent most of her career in service to those who serve. Her extensive public sector experience includes ghostwriting for elected officials and military generals, authoring investigations and public reports, and bringing a voice and audience to those without a platform. She believes language is an art and enjoys using language to advocate for others in ways that are professional, clear, and respectful.

Veterans’ mental health and support have been the guiding star in her career; Bailey volunteers at and has extensively advocated for veteran organizations in her native Texas. She has spent over a decade researching PTSD in veterans, using her research and connections to advocate for positive change and support for military families. She has written extensively on behalf of service members in need of assistance, as well as for military leaders seeking authentic ways to connect with their personnel. She has organized events and supported advocacy efforts for organizations such as Gideons 300 and Texas Veteran County Service Officers. On a nice day, you can often find her volunteering at a park or trail cleanup.

Bailey received her degree in political science from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where she also minored in studio art.