From Idea to Outcome: How to Set Goals for Your Nonprofit Organization

Beginning the year with goal planning can seem like a stressful or overwhelming exercise. Given how 2020 has played out, you might wonder if it’s even worth the effort. But successful nonprofit organizations understand the value in planning for the future and directing its people, time, and resources toward accomplishing those plans.

Goals are what show you the important steps to take to reach that envisioned future. Getting started on goals, however, can trip up even the best-intentioned organizations. Here is how you can begin the goal-setting process and walk away with a concrete plan for success.

Understand Where You Are

Your goal-setting process will have you looking 6-12 months into your organization’s future, so you’ll want to include crucial people like your organization’s senior staff and board of directors. This planning team will have the institutional knowledge and experience needed to aim the organization in the right direction.

Once you’ve established your planning team, begin by examining your present situation. Take a look at every aspect of your nonprofit: mission, services rendered, board and staff structure, volunteers, the works. If you’ve set goals before, revisit them and see how well you met them.

Also, look at your organization’s foundational principles for guidance. Review your mission statement and values. Have you previously developed a vision statement? If you’ve started planning your future before, remind your planning team of where that vision was pointing, and then assess if your current situation reflects that. How have needs changed from then to now? Do your beneficiaries or clients have different needs to consider? How might the pandemic have changed that?

Figure Out Where You Want to Be

With a grip on your organization’s current status, it’s time to consider the direction you want to go. Creating a vision statement and plan paints the picture of the organization’s desired direction and should be the deliverable completed at this stage. Your planning team will likely have plenty of ideas to suggest, so set aside ample time for a session to brainstorm ideas, expected outcomes and aspirations. Some guiding questions to drive this session include:

  • What services will best support our beneficiaries in the near future?
  • What does our board makeup look like? Or our volunteers and staff? Do they represent the people we serve?
  • Who comprises our community? How might that change in the near future?
  • What should our financial position look like?
  • What are our growth areas?

Naturally, you won’t be able to predict the future — nobody saw 2020 unfolding the way it has. But by developing an organizational vision and knowing where you want your path to go, it becomes harder to be swayed from that path. Mission creep is easier to prevent with a clear and specific vision.

Include Scenario Planning

This year has shown us how uncertainty can challenge any organization’s plan. Uncertainty can also frustrate a planning team or even temper their vision’s expectations. To allay concerns, you first have to face them. Give your planning team dedicated time — separate from visioning — to raise and redress concerns. Considering how things could go wrong can help alleviate uncertainty and encourage the planning team to think aspirationally during the visioning process.

As part of the visioning process, your planning team should identify key factors, particularly those revenue drivers at greatest risk. Fundraising, operations, programs — whatever those are, cover the risks they face. Then run through best- and worst-case scenario planning on the outcomes of those drivers and develop potential response actions to prepare for a range of possibilities.

During this process, planning teams can easily trap themselves in every worst-case scenario or impose self-limitations on their creativity and imagination, hampering strategic visioning. An excellent framework to break free of that and to encourage creativity is the Six Thinking Hats methodology. Each “hat” encourages a broader range of perspectives, which can help drive strategic decision-making around your vision:

  • White hat — Facts and information. What do you know now and what do you need to know to make a decision?
  • Red hat — Thoughts and feelings. How do you feel about the decision, without evidence or facts to support your position?
  • Green hat — Creativity. What could be achieved, and what are the possibilities open to you?
  • Black hat — Negatives. What risks are you assuming? What could go wrong? What are the downsides?
  • Yellow hat — Positives. What are the benefits of this decision? What value could the organization gain?
  • Blue hat — Process. Did you walk through all these steps? Is anything missing?

The Six Thinking Hats offers your planning team the opportunity to more fully consider their concerns and feel more confident in their decisions as they build the organization’s vision.

Set Goals to Accomplish

Your vision is the destination, but how do you reach that destination? Goals serve as the markers along the journey. They demonstrate progress, and they should be designed around reaching your destination.

SMART goals have become an industry norm for goal design; that’s because their underlying framework makes sense. It forces the goal-setter to more critically analyze what they want to achieve and lay out a clearer path to do so. As a reminder, SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely.

As your team drafts its SMART goals, it’s vital to consider how you’re going to measure success. Some goals like fundraising or volunteer hours might be easier to track, but other goals like increasing brand awareness may rely on softer metrics like brand impressions or anecdotal feedback from your audience. Remember that SMART goals must be measurable, so attach the best metric you can to each goal and review your technology and operations to ensure you can properly measure them.

Plan Objectives and Tactics

Goals alone are a great step, but then your team must determine how the organization will actually meet those goals. By following the SMART framework, you’ll have an idea of the components you’ll need. Now add specific objectives to each goal, as well as tactics you expect to follow to do so.

As an example, your goal may be to fundraise $100,000 for a new program by the end of next year. You can divide that into quarterly or monthly milestones to show progress. If you need to hire specialized program staff, include that as an objective. Your tactics can include fundraising channels, responsible parties and donor outreach methods you plan to use.

Getting specific can offer your organization’s members greater confidence in the outcome. For example, fundraising goals may seem like low-hanging fruit, but a lot of board members feel they’re too disengaged to fundraise well. Breaking down goals into specific, assignable action items can help individual board members figure out where exactly to plug in. Set smaller fundraising objectives between board meetings and invite their feedback on what fundraising means to them to keep them motivated toward goal completion. And celebrate their contributions and successes along the way as further encouragement.

Consider Pitfalls and Opportunities

Every goal and its objectives will present both opportunities to succeed and pitfalls where it could fall short. While it’s impossible to anticipate everything, your planning team should conduct an audit of each goal and assess potential weak spots and ways to improve chances of success.

Both pitfalls and opportunities will present themselves as the external environment around your organization changes. For example, 2020 saw many organizations move operations to an all-virtual environment and showed them how to deploy hybrid structures to successfully run their board meetings, events, and other functions. What had traditionally been done in-person can now be accomplished remotely. Technology like board management software can facilitate this as organizations expand their capabilities and reach new donor bases and candidate pools for recruitment.

As your team analyzes pitfalls and opportunities, leave space to consider where pitfalls could be flipped into opportunities. Look at your current challenges and think about how they could be improved. Is there a technological solution to invest in? Or something a board member or volunteer could help with?

Build Organizational Buy-in

Once your planning team has prepared their goals and the roadmap to accomplish them, publicize your goals. Those who will actualize objectives and tactics — fundraisers, marketing professionals and volunteers — will want to know the thought process behind each goal and understand their role. Listen to their ideas and feedback, and don’t be afraid to tweak goals as needed. But getting their buy-in on your goals is essential for success.

This can be done in creative ways. For example, inviting board members to share the organization’s mission and goals through their own communication channels like social media has been a popular way to engage board members. If your board can do it, why not staff members or volunteers? By framing goals in their own terms, they’ll better understand what guides those goals and invest more in helping them succeed.

Set Milestones for Review

Your goals should guide your organization’s activities as the year progresses, but goals need the occasional tune-up. Set times to review progress on goals, perhaps on a quarterly basis or at every other board meeting. Depending on your goals’ time horizons, you may want to adjust time between check-ins: at the start, fundraising for a program that begins in six months should be scrutinized more often than a multi-year goal to improve organizational operations.

What’s most important is taking steps to build a cadence of accountability. Revisiting progress on goals and keeping it top-of-mind throughout the organization is what sets that cadence. At the staff level, a 15-minute weekly huddle offers the opportunity to check in on progress and make changes as needed. Board meetings can begin with this kind of check-in as well. Consider a visual aid for boards and staff members: a dashboard with initiatives marked green (in progress), yellow (need help) or red (stuck) can clarify progress and where resources and time should be allocated.

This process should also include reviewing the people most responsible for accomplishing those goals. Evaluating a nonprofit organization’s CEO is not only an expectation for a board of directors but also an opportunity to reevaluate progress toward goals and make adjustments. Goal success requires dedicated leadership, and a board of directors can hold the right people accountable and set the tone for the whole organization.

Goal-setting can seem like a daunting proposition, but it’s an important step for any nonprofit organization looking to grow in service of its mission. Gather your planning team and foundational knowledge, set a vision for your organization’s future, and create SMART goals with actionable steps and accountability to guide your organization toward success.

About Boardable:

Boardable is an online board management portal that centralizes communication, document storage, meeting planning, and everything involved with running a board of directors. Founded in 2016 by nonprofit leaders and founders, Boardable has a mission to improve board engagement for nonprofits. Boardable is based in Indianapolis, Indiana. Learn more at

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