Your Journey Forward: How to Set Goals for Your Nonprofit Organization Now

At this time of year, whether you’re on a calendar or fiscal year, you’re likely thinking about your nonprofit organization’s goals ahead.

Or perhaps you need to update your goals because, let’s face it, the previous year may have thrown you for a few curveballs.

So that begs the question—how do you establish goals when the terrain still seems so rocky and even turbulent?

Here are five steps to get you, your board, and staff started.

Assess Where Your Nonprofit Is Right Now

First, assess where your nonprofit organization is right now. While some organizations have suffered great setback, such as the arts and culture sector, others have continued to thrive through the coronavirus, economic, and racial justice crises.

According to a study I co-authored in 2020, What’s Really Happening with Nonprofit Revenue[GSB1] , about 25 percent of nonprofit leaders who participated believed their revenue would remain the same as in 2019 or grow by more 10 to 50 percent. One respondent anticipated growth by more than 50 percent.

These leaders found new opportunities; cranked new or refined strategies into high gear; built awareness for their missions; and innovated.

Whether your nonprofit organization is struggling, thriving, or somewhere in between, your approach to goal-setting will be different. One group may need to rebuild, repair, and refocus, while the other may continue growth plans and build new support structures so that growth is continual.

Where is your nonprofit organization now, and what are you facing? In what state is your operation? No judgment, simply acknowledge what’s happening for your organization now.

Reflect and Learn

Next, revisit the past year and reflect on what you learned.

  • What makes you particularly proud?
  • Where did your nonprofit organization excel?
  • What would you have done differently if you could do things over?
  • What lessons will guide you in the future?
  • What new capabilities do you have?
  • What new processes or intellectual capital do you have?
  • What new assets do you have, such as new relationships, an expanded data base, or a series of virtual events?

You may notice an emotional response: sadness, disappointment, even grief. That’s OK. Let these feeling arise and wash through you. Then let go when you’re ready. We all have a lot to grieve or feel disappointed about and processing all that you feel will allow you to move forward with fresh perspective.

Look Around

It’s great to look internally, but you also have to look at the external landscape, too. What’s changed? Take a look at the funding landscape, your competitors, and most importantly at the needs and drivers of your core audiences.

Identify trends, events and issues in the next three to five years that may have an impact on your work. For example, many local and state budgets have been devastated, and if you rely on government grants or contracts, will your funding be impacted?

The Future

Now imagine where you want to be at the end of the year, given what you’ve observed and noted about your nonprofit organization and the landscape around you through the previous three steps. For example:

  • You have new capabilities now. Does that take you in a new direction or open up new possibilities?
  • Perhaps yours was not among the growth-oriented nonprofit organizations, and you’re realizing you need to strengthen fiscal sustainability, but with different funding sources because you see roadblocks to some of your tried-and-true sources.
  • Or perhaps you’ve furloughed staff or had lay-offs. Now you need to rebuild your operations, and you need to rebuild in new ways.

Frame your future goals in a positive light, filled with aspiration, challenge, and enthusiasm.

What are your nonprofit’s goals?

Now define three to five goals (fewer if your nonprofit organization is smaller) for the next year, and double check that they are realistic and embraced by everyone.

Using the SMART goal model is one way to test for how realistic they are. SMART goals, of course, are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time Bound.

While smart goals sound wonderfully pragmatic, your goals also have to get you excited and juiced up. Remember it’s your clear vision and connection to the feeling you’ll have when you accomplish your goals that will drive you on, especially if you hit a rough patch.

With considerable uncertainty still in the marketplace, identify contingency plans and ways you’ll work around any roadblocks. We have plenty of reason to be optimistic going forward. However, having solid contingency plans created when you’re objective—rather than freaking out—will help you and your team succeed through many circumstances.

Finally, be sure to identify what resources—budget, staffing, external expertise or services, materials, equipment, technology—you need to have in place. Too often nonprofit organizations skip this step, only to watch their awesome goals slip through their fingers because achieving them was impossible without proper resources.

Keep your eyes on the road ahead and watch for signs of change, getting sidetracked, or overwhelmed. Overcome these obstacles, and enjoy the destination ahead.


[GSB1] – Nonprofit Revenue and Leadership Mindset – Interesting Must Read Data Points.

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