NewsOnboarding for a nonprofit. ONBOARDING concept. Notebook on an orange background.

Building An Effective Onboarding Program for Your Nonprofit

Most nonprofit leaders recognize the importance of Employee Onboarding, but implementing effective onboarding for your organization can seem daunting. An effective program that includes a few essential ingredients can mean the difference, however, between creating intended impact with new employees or losing prized new hires.

As an association dedicated to nonprofit search, the Network for Nonprofit Search Consultants (NNSC) believes effective onboarding of new employees is vital. In addition to investments that many organizations make in recruiting new leaders and team members, whether internally run or with the assistance of search partners like Catalyst Consulting Services, planning for your new employee’s transition and early tenure creates lasting results.

Clear Data Links Onboarding to Employee Retention

Research has affirmed repeatedly that effective onboarding programs create significant results in employee retention.

Research highlights:

  • Onboarding has more impact than any other practice among 22 HR practices, except for effective recruiting. (Boston Consulting Group)
  • Organizations with strong onboarding improve new hire retention by 82%. (Brandon Hall Group)
  • 58% of new hires are more likely to stay 3+ years if onboarding is structured. (Wynhurst Group)
  • 86% of new employees decide to stay or leave within the first 6 months. (Aberdeen Group)
  • Organizations lose up to 20% of their new hires within the first 45 days. (Quartz at Work)
  • Turnover is expensive, with estimates from 50% – 200% of an employee’s salary to replace. (CompData)
  • Employees who felt their onboarding was highly effective were 30 times more likely to have high job satisfaction. (Bamboo)


Employees succeed or fail in new roles based on the strength and effectiveness of their key job relationships, and on how they navigate and feel they belong in team and organizational culture.

Relationships. Who and what internal or community relationships will break or make your new employee’s success? Know who, know the priorities, and share both helpful background and political landmines.

  • Ensure other parties know your vision and focus for the new employee. Be clear about where you need their help to create success for this new hire. If the role is new or evolved, make sure that’s clear.
  • Actively help the employee build key relationships through positive early introductions and meaningful work together. Avoid scheduling meet and greets and hoping for the best. Managers can use 1-1 agendas to understand if the new relationship is working well and moving along. Champion new hire and resolve issues early.

 Culture. Studies from leading research organizations reveal that more leaders fail because they fail successfully to navigate culture.

“Organizational culture and politics, not lack of competence or
managerial skill, were the primary reasons for failure.”
Harvard Business Review

 As leader or manager, set one of your first 1-1 meetings with new hires to review values and culture. Share stories and detail that reveal how values and culture will show up in their roles and work.

  • Embrace culture “add,” end culture “fit.” Leading organizations today seek individuals who enhance their culture and work to ensure new viewpoints and life experiences are valued. Seeking individuals who “fit” existing cultures typically prevents or erodes inclusion and belonging.
  • Create a culture check list. Ask existing team members to share what a new employee should know about the organization’s culture in order to be successful. Their inputs will be revealing. Affirm and share positives, but also break negatives that may be pushing new hires away.
  • Forbes: The End of Culture Fit.

 Skills and Competencies. Most employees need to learn and develop major competencies as they grow in their roles, even when organizations hire well. Identify and sequence competencies – and the levels needed – for each particular role.

  • Make sure your new hire has a copy of their job description and review in detail.
  • Clarify expectations and outline what success looks like after 6 months and a year.
  • If an annual performance evaluation form exists, share with your employee up front.


 Effective onboarding can be layered far more easily into existing workflows than leaders often believe. Let your new team members observe, apprentice, and engage in real work unfolding. Devote more time to previews, guidance, and follow-ups with your new hire than designing “new” separate onboarding modules.

View onboarding as an employee’s first 12 months, not a 1-day or 1-week orientation. Map month one with great care and the first 3 months with deliberate structure. As the year unfolds, recap early content, add more advanced learning modules, build additional relationships, and ensure check-ins get under what’s working or not.

The role of the manager is paramount. Invest meaningful time up front to create success, and make that visible to the employee and others. Avoid delegating onboarding too heavily to colleagues who may not share the same vision or context.

  • 72% of employees say one-on-one time with their direct manager is the most important part of any pre-boarding and onboarding process. (Enboarder)

60/40 content design is a good rule.

  • 60% of onboarding content applies to most new employees, so be consistent across new hires about mission and values, policies and procedures, diversity and inclusion, organizational software and systems, site plans and tours, and organizational structure, history, and aspirations.
  • 40% typically applies to an employee’s particular role/team/program, responsibilities, relationships, skill development, and use of technology.

 Sequence learning, content, and apprenticeship in smart ways. Organizations and leaders need to get work done, and humans learn better by doing. Avoid delivering overwhelming “fire-hose” orientations. Based on your organization’s needs and the position description, put the right ingredients in the right order, and build competencies over time.

 Use existing meetings to advance learning and convey values and culture.

  • Engage new hires with as many small groups as possible that are already meeting. The individual will meet more colleagues and gain context in real work situations.
  • Examine team and large group agendas with new hires in mind. Offer a preview, listen for insider language, and stop briefly to explain as meetings unfolds – or ensure a buddy sits nearby to help interpret.
  • Use manager 1-1 time with deliberate care. Affirm focus and priorities and provide guidance for particular weeks and months. Set realistic expectations and appropriate pace; create boundaries that avoid scope creep or insertion of others’ agendas, and spot new employee behaviors – from insecurity to a desire to please, from overconfidence to fear of failure – in order to shape and aim energies early on.
  • Assign a collegial “buddy” who is not a supervisor. Ask the buddy to connect informally in early weeks, to create safe space for questions and guidance.


 Having effective teachers and guides is often more important than content. Some colleagues have great group teaching skills and others are better 1-1. Consider who is teaching and delivering onboarding. Checking in with recent employees, and listening for confusion, concern, or challenges, can reveal that alternate teaching or support may be necessary.

 Technology, data, and operating systems underpin most jobs today and make or break employee success. Overestimate and plan for extra time and learning on systems in early several months.

Most new employees learn systems more effectively by doing, not by listening and watching. Avoid show and tell sessions in which a new employee listens to a leader/expert talk and share screens. Employ hands-on learning approaches that enable a new hire to operate the actual technology.

Have the employee learn new parts of the job when using it for an actual function, vs. out of context. Schedule a learning module in advance of a particular work activity, share advance reading or materials and allow time to consume, do the task, meeting, or activity in partnership, then recap and answer questions as a follow-up.

 Work manuals and reference handbooks can be helpful, and it’s fine to build modules over time. Good handbooks and templates evolve. Start with 1-2 pagers, asking colleagues to document in bullets or brief prose what’s important, how something is currently done. The base of knowledge grows over time.

 Build formal self-learning hours into early days and weeks, assigning chapters to read or links to files on your online file or document system. Pre-reading ideally aligns with an upcoming task, activity, meeting, or briefing, to help the new employee feel better informed and equipped.

Ensure periodic check-ins to understand how your new employee is doing and feeling about their decision to join your organization. Ask and listen. Ask again.

Bottom line, building a stronger onboarding program can create significant benefits not only for your new employees but also for your organization and existing staff, from employee retention to program success, and from individual and team performance to long-term mission impact.

Michelle Turman, MA, CFRE is the CEO of Catalyst Consulting Services whose mission is to facilitate positive change for nonprofits in the areas of executive searches, organizational management, and fundraising. With over twenty-seven years of nonprofit experience, Turman has been responsible for increasing the impact and best practices of nonprofit organizations she serves and has raised over $87 million for the Tampa Bay community through her professional and personal philanthropic efforts. Turman is also the Chair of Knowledge & Thought Leadership Committee of the Network for Nonprofit Search Consultants (NNSC)

 This article was a white paper created in collaboration with nonprofits search leaders of the Knowledge & Thought Leadership Committee of the Network for Nonprofit Search Consultants (NNSC)