Onboarding is More Than Orientation


By Founder and CEO Monisha Kapila 


ProInspire is a nonprofit dedicated to developing the next generation of social sector leaders by expanding the talent pipeline, developing professionals, and increasing diversity. Over the past three years, ProInspire has partnered with more than 25 other nonprofit organizations in Washington, DC and the San Francisco Bay Area to bring on ProInspire Fellows—business professionals with two to five years of experience who want to pursue careers in the nonprofit sector. Fellows spend a year working in an analytical or strategic role at a nonprofit organization and receive monthly trainings with a cohort of peers, a coach, and a network to support career growth. We at ProInspire have found that Fellows who go through a comprehensive onboarding process feel comfortable in their new roles sooner and are able to start adding value at their organizations more quickly than those who do not.

Onboarding is much more than orientation. Managers should think about onboarding as a multi-step process that enables new hires to learn and adjust so they can function most effectively and happily in their new organization. In fact, we refer to the first three months on the job as “the onboarding period.” This phrase comes from a book we give all Fellows before they start: The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, by Michael Watkins.

Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned about onboarding. Though our experience focuses mostly on sector switchers, these strategies can be applied to any new hire at any level.

1. Provide opportunities for the new hire to build relationships and learn the culture

We find that poor cultural fit is the number one reason new hires are unsuccessful when they join a nonprofit. The best way for a new hire to learn the organization’s culture is to get to know its people, so managers should be thoughtful about providing opportunities to build relationships across the organization and with various constituencies to speed up transition time. A few best practices we’ve seen are:

  • Introduce the new hire to the entire organization: This can be done via email or a staff meeting. The introduction should include the new hire’s bio and why she joined the organization.
  • Arrange “meet and greets”: Meet and greets are one-on-one meetings (usually about 30 minutes long) between the new hire and people at different levels in the organization. I first learned to do meet and greets at Capital One and think they are tremendously useful for onboarding. During one-on-one meetings, the new hire should share some highlights of his background, what brought him to the organization, and what he will be working on in his new role. Then the person he is meeting with does the same. This enables new hires to build personal connections with people across the organization. The manager should suggest a list of staff members for meet and greets, then the new hire can ask for additional suggestions as he gets to know more people.
  • Connect the new hire with other staff who have a similar background: A new hire may feel alone in her transition, so it can be helpful for her to connect with other staff members who may have had similar experiences. For example, connect a recent graduate with staff who joined the organization after college, or sector switchers with those who transitioned from other careers.

2. Create a learning agenda

New hires should develop their learning agenda in consultation with their manager; The First 90 Days has a great chapter and tools that deal with learning agendas. We have often seen people new to working at nonprofits encounter a steep learning curve about the sector and how to work effectively in it, so consider including the following:

  • Provide documents to learn the organization’s work: This may include past fundraising proposals, board reports, or other internal materials.
  • Suggest further reading and articles: We survey Fellows each year and ask them which books, blogs, and listservs they found most useful to learn their “industry.” Examples have included Nextbillion.net’s impact investing space and Eduwonk.com’s education space.
  • Attend conferences and industry events: While many nonprofits do not budget for these events, attending even a single industry conference can be a quick and efficient way for someone to learn the key players and latest trends in their area of focus. For example, our past Fellows at City First Enterprises integrated quickly into the world of community development finance by attending the Opportunity Finance Network conference.

3. Set goals and schedule regular check-ins

We’ve found that regular check-ins between the new hire and manager are critical during the onboarding period. Check-ins are a great way to set expectations, ensure alignment on goals, and exchange feedback.

  • Schedule weekly check-ins for the first three months: Even if the new hire and manager interact daily, setting aside time for a weekly check-in creates a dedicated space to review goals and the learning agenda. A best practice is for employees to create the agenda, drive the check-in, and follow up afterward with key next steps. The manager should request that the new hire do this early on so it becomes part of his routine.
  • Identify small projects for quick wins: The best learning often happens by doing, so identify small projects that the new hire can start working on quickly. For example, our Fellow at Year Up Bay Area was asked to draft a press release for an event during her first week of work. Writing the press release enabled her to quickly learn about the organization and start reaching out to media contacts. (This project also led to a profile of Year Up in The Wall Street Journal, so small projects can lead to big wins!)
  • Plan for a three-month review: Having a formal check-in after the first three months is a reliable way to ensure the new hire is set up for success at the organization. Any challenges that may have come up during the first few months should be addressed here. By this time, the new hire should start to feel integrated and also be able to identify additional areas where they feel they can contribute at the organization.


Bringing in a new employee is a major investment for any organization. Although recruiting and selection are important, a good onboarding process can also make or break the individual’s success. Organizations that focus on integrating new hires into their culture, supporting their learning curves, and checking in regularly will reap the rewards of their investment.

Monisha Kapila is the founder and CEO of ProInspire, a nonprofit developing leaders at all levels for organizations addressing the world’s greatest challenges. Monisha launched ProInspire because she is passionate about helping organizations and individuals achieve their potential for social impact. She spent her career working in both the private and nonprofit sectors and believes that human capital is the most important force for social change.

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