How you on-board any employee determines how welcome they feel, how quickly they get up to speed, and what assumptions they make about your organization for a long time.
Have you ever gotten a new job and when you asked what you should do the first day, they said, “Make sure you drop by HR and do your paperwork”?
The lack of even basic levels of training and orientation at some fundraising shops has left me absolutely flabbergasted as to how those places form even marginally effective teams or how they retain any employees. Preventing turnover starts at the very beginning of the employment relationship.
When I was in the interview process to serve as Vice President for Starr King School for the Ministry (the position I currently hold as of the writing of this post), I read the phenomenal book The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, by Michael D. Watkins. It helped me to craft my own on-boarding process as a new institutional leader. I worked with my new president to create a custom on-boarding process that gave me space in the first three months to learn the institution and craft a plan for the best chance of success. I met not only with key donors, but also with board members, former employees, communications consultants, and faculty members. I learned the values of the organization as well as the political mine fields to avoid. I found out what had and had not been tried in the past. Basically, it was priceless reconnaissance that played a huge role in my future success in fundraising for the school.
In The First 90 Days, Watkins emphasizes that the first 90 days is a pivotal time which can catapult a new employee into a vicious cycle of making early mistakes and never quite recovering from them OR those same 90 days can be the on-ramp of a virtuous cycle with early wins that increase confidence in both the new employee and the organization. That’s exactly what it did for me.
A similar process happened when I was hired at The University of Southern Mississippi. Five development staff were hired at the same time and our manager put us through a 3-week training program where we met with deans, directors, and prominent faculty to learn all the fantastic funding-worthy projects at Southern Miss. We also sat for presentations about planned giving and other more technical topics. Not only did we all bond together as a phenomenal team, but every single person went on to great success within their roles.
The Three As
As I see it, the three elements that every exceptional on-boarding process possesses are the 3 As: Alignment, Alliances, and Acceleration. (I’m simplifying and slightly modifying Watkins here.)
*Everything I am going to say in this post can be modified for our new distancing reality with coronavirus. Just because you can’t take a new employee out to lunch, doesn’t mean you can’t have a BYOB(L) – Bring Your Own Bag (Lunch) Zoom meeting to get to know them personally.
Getting your new folks into alignment means that you have a pre-determined process to get to know your employee and how that employee comes to know your organization. You must have formal sessions that communicate the organizational culture, including expectations and norms. Does everyone roll in anytime before 9:30AM? Or is this a shop where everyone is expected to be there by 8AM sharp? What are the expectations around dress? Around meetings and promptness? How flexible is the organization about working from home and handling things like illness and children? This needs to go beyond what Human Resources would tell someone. Your new hire needs to know how things work, not how the employee handbook says they should work.
Another often overlooked part of getting to know the organization is communicating organizational politics. Most people feel gossipy putting this into words but telling your new hire the truth about these things is a gift to them. Knowing that there’s one dean on campus that a true pain-in-the-ass but they are highly regarded by the president and all the faculty could be a career saver for a new person. Why wait for them to “step-in-it” to learn what you probably already know? Think through what you wish you had known when you started and be very candid and frank about the political climate of your organization.
Alignment is not a one-way process. The flipside is that you must also get to know your employee during this on-boarding period. During the interview process, you are learning about them but not getting to know them. In the interview, you are judging. Now, your only goal is to learn about them so you can support them as their leader and manager. You must know them to help them succeed. Take them to lunch and tell them they cannot talk about work. Have weekly check-ins for a while to uncover any issues with the training and early assignments.
The time invested in meeting with them will pay dividends when you jointly decide together (at some point during the first three months) what success looks like. You will set goals together. These goals will have grown out of their training and understanding of the organization and your understanding of their strengths and skills.
A key component of a virtuous cycle on-boarding program is it includes pre-set meetings with important partners within your office and throughout your organization (perhaps key vendors too). The hiring manager will have set all of these up before the new hire arrives and this introduces them to all the relevant colleagues and partners. These meetings end up being the platform where a ton of information gets downloaded but also every partner the newbie meets with becomes invested in their success. This is the secret. If the new hire calls one of these colleagues for help early in their tenure, they are likely to deliver that assistance.
Another thing that can promote alliances within your immediate team is to have strengths assessments and personality tests done on all members of the team. When a new person is hired, the team can discuss how their personalities complement each other and align with the new team member. This cements the team together.
Somewhere you probably have an employee handbook that explains how to submit expenses reports and how to take days off. You need to level up from that if you want your new hires to have mind-blowing success fast. Information accelerates success!
Your new employees deserve a binder full of process documentation that shows them how to make a data request, how to enter a proposal into the database, a list of all standing meetings they are expected to be involved with, and a yearly calendar of major work events and tasks for the entire year. (Of course, customize this for the position and your office. My list was just an example of the sort of things you would put in this guide.) If you have never read the E-Myth, I suggest you read my post about process documentation here and pick up that book, along with The First 90 Days.
Technical training is also crucial to assess. Many entry level fundraisers do not have the specific training they need to truly excel in their new roles. For example, while broadly our industry views annual giving as an entry-point into fundraising, it is one of the more technical and difficult areas of fundraising to get right. Invest in training for them. Big conferences full of new ideas and innovations may sound exciting, but as a new person without the fundamentals on board, I guarantee all those new ideas will feel overwhelming quickly.
The need for an in-depth course into the fundamentals of the art and science of fundraising is why I’m fast-tracking my plans to get my All-Star Annual Giving course up and running. For far less than the cost of an average in-person conference ($597), you can get your new folks trained in the science (data, analytics) and art (writing, strategy) of fundraising. It will take no time on your part, your new hire will be off to the races no matter what area of annual giving they work in, and you'll be an All-Star manager with a goal-busting team. This comprehensive curriculum is grounded in evidence-based fundraising and designed and taught by me, Jessica Cloud. You can check out my bio here as well as testimonials here.
All-Star Annual Giving is a fully online 12-week course with 9 modules covering all areas of annual giving strategy and execution. You can see a draft outline of the course here. Registration opens in the next couple of weeks. The course will open in May, Sign up today to get updates.
Enrollment in the course will include lifetime access to the course modules, which include dozens of lessons. Each lesson will be presented in written and audio formats, so you can read at your desk or on your phone. You can also listen to audio lessons on your commute. Every lesson will be enriched with videos (where appropriate), downloadable planning sheets, templates and examples. Enrollment will also include access to a Facebook group with your cohort (and later alumni of the program) for support and on-going questions and advice.
Finally, your new hire will be accelerated to success by you specifically telling them that you support them and letting them know where they need to go with their questions. If your employees feel comfortable letting you know that they don’t understand something or don’t know how they can achieve their goals, you’ve won! Because that level of trust between a manager and an employee is what will enable you to jointly find solutions that work.
What does your on-boarding program look like? How has that changed with isolating for coronavirus? Have you invested in any online training for your new hires? Let me know in the comments.
And of course, questions are, as always, encouraged!
PS – The photo for this is my daughter boarding for a big train ride to Chicago to see Hamilton! Clearly, I’m missing travel quite a bit. Also, if you liked this post, you might also like these:
PPS – No funds to invest in online training? For every 10 folks that sign up for my All-Star Annual Giving course, I’ll be gifting a full scholarship for course access to someone who would otherwise not be able to afford the course. You can apply here. Check out the entire course outline and other information about All-Star Annual Giving today too.
Jessica Cloud, CFRE
I've been called the Tasmanian Devil of fundraising and I'm here to talk shop with you.