Onboarding the New Nonprofit CEO: Who’s In Charge?

Onboarding the New Nonprofit CEO: Who’s In Charge?id-100423604

By Eugene Fram                  Free Digital image

When the chair of the search committee announces that a new CEO has been selected, there is visible relief in the boardroom. After the stress of a waning—or even absent executive at the helm, directors tend to relax, engaging in a series of social events that provide a pleasant if superficial acquaintance with the new executive.

What actually lies ahead is much more serious and vital to the future of the organization. Call it orientation, acculturation or transitioning; it is the board’s responsibility to see that the CEO is grounded in every aspect of the organization. And that requires a plan that is carefully structured and may take a year to complete. Major responsibility for the plan and its implementation rests with the board chair and one or more senior board members. While there are many formats to achieve this goal, the best, in my opinion, is what has been described as a customized format.

Under a customized format the nonprofit board tailors a program that helps the new executive develop a solid base in the organization and an understanding of its unique climate and culture.
Biweekly meetings should be scheduled. However, both sides should be wary if the time required does not decrease considerably as the year progresses. The CEO will then operate more independently, perhaps even making modest mistakes from which he/s can easily recover. Those handling the orientation must take care to delegate responsibility incrementally, based on the CEO’s background and experiences. Every custom designed orientation program should include nine steps. Some must be taken in sequence, while other steps can proceed concurrently.

1. Developing immediate and long-term goals: After several months on the job, ask the CEO to solidify his immediate goals and determine whether or not a new strategic plan needs to be considered.
2. Reviewing fiscal and personnel resources: The CFO and chair of the audit committee should be responsible for this orientation, assuming the CEO has an adequate financial background. If not, the CEO and the board chair need to find a way(s) to fast track the person’s development in this area. When the CEO has had a chance to assess the staff talent bank, he and the board chair should compare notes to determine if their assessments are on the same page.
3. Examining current policies and procedures: As soon as possible, the board chair and CEO need to have a discussion about the division between board responsibility for policy and strategies and the CEO’s responsibilities for operating issues and tactics.
4. Developing staff relationships: Depending on the size of the staff, the board might sponsor one or more informal meetings between the CEO and Staff.
5. Fostering board relationships: The board chair needs to make certain that the CEO has personal one-to-one meetings with all board members as practical, depending on the composition of the board.
6. Cultivating community or industry relationships: The amount of time necessary for this step will depend on the person’s background.
7. Understanding the clientele, membership and other stakeholders: This function should evolve over the first year, supported by the board chair.
8. Discussing the new executive’s career expectations: If this has not been determined during the hiring process, it should be discussed frankly towards the end of the first year.
9. Establishing a succession plan should the executive be temporarily incapacitated: After the CEO becomes comfortably acquainted with the staff, the board chair and CEO need to make this decision. If they decide that there is no one on staff to fill the temporary gap, the board must decide how to seek outside assistance, e.g., a consultant, a board member, a recently retired CEO, etc.

On boarding a new CEO clearly has not been a priority for a portion of nonprofits. “Nearly half (46 Percent0of the 214 CEOs responding to a 2014 Bridgespan Group survey reported getting little of no help from their boards when first taking on the (CEO) position.” * The cost of this gap to nonprofit organizations must be substantial.

Of special onboarding interest is:  Going For Impact:  The Nonprofit Director’s Essential Guidebook–What to Know, Do and No Do  2016,  https://goo.gl/Dwa9le

* http://www.bridgespan.org/publications-and-tools/nonprofit-boards/resources-for-board-members/nonprofit-boards-role-in-onboarding-a-new-ceo.aspx#.VzzcYWbLMz4

Sources: Eugene Fram with Vicki Brown, Policy vs. Paper Clips, Third Edition, 2011 https://goo.gl/QEL8x3


Eugene Fram & Robert Pearse, The High-Performance Nonprofit, Milwaukee, Wisc, Families International, 1992.





  1. Good advice and resources. I would add that using a professional on-boarding coach should be considered. The cost is worth it. Those that engage in this work have at least one additional perspective: an outsiders view and the time to ensure that the Board is living up to the promises made. After all the investment in recruiting, it is necessary to make that investment work in people terms.


  2. Failure to implement a formal on-boarding process for a new CEO rises to the level of malpractice on the part of the Board. I’d add that it’s equally as important to have a strong on-boarding process for new Board members.


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