Frequently Asked Questions about Setting and Using Goals

Setting goals and running into questions? Here are answers to some of the most frequent questions we hear about setting and using goals.

(And make sure to check out our “success sheet” for setting goals and another version for checking in on goals during the year.)

1. How many goals should a person have? How many goals are too many?

In general, the number of goals for a person or department should be in the rough range of three to five. Going slightly over this (say, to eight) isn’t a disaster, but having way too many – we’ve seen organizations in which one person will have 32 significant goals for the year – means that you can’t truly focus on many of them.

In fact, having just a single, clear, overriding goal can be incredibly powerful. For instance, your development director might have several goals around adding new major donors, raising a certain amount from an event, and so forth, but ultimately you want her to be obsessing over a single bottom-line goal for dollars raised during the year.

In cases where a person does have multiple goals, consider indicating their relative weight. For instance, you might decide that while broadly educating the public on your issue is a goal, it represents only 10% of success for the year, and getting your curriculum adopted by a majority of school districts in your state is worth 60% and thus much more important.

2. What if goals need to change partway through the year?

In general, managers should be reluctant to change goals during the course of the year, because once a target is established, the team should commit to doing anything and everything to reach that target. However, extraordinary circumstances may make reaching a goal simply impossible, in which case a leader would change the goal. For instance, an organization’s advocacy director might have an ambitious agenda this year, but if a high-profile current event – such as a major disaster – dramatically shifts the public’s focus, she might have to recognize that significant progress this year isn’t going to happen, regardless of her efforts. She might instead focus on laying the groundwork for the future, perhaps building a cadre of committed “grasstops” leaders who would speak on behalf of the issue next year.

3. How do I write a goal when I don’t have numerical metrics to work with?

Goals don’t always need to be – and can’t always be – quantitative. But when success is hard to quantify, which is often the case in the nonprofit context, you can instead come to a qualitative agreement about what success looks like.

The trick in creating qualitative goals is to tap into the instinct that you would “know success when you see it” and to articulate the specifics beneath that instinct. For instance, if your goal is to generate significant attention to your organization’s issue during a congressional campaign, you might word the goal this way: “Our issue will become a salient issue in the congressional campaign, meaning that it will be included prominently in candidate materials, questions will be asked about it in debates and town hall meetings, candidates will mention it in ads and at events, and polls will show it among the top 10 issues on voters’ minds.” Or a conference organizer might make one of her goals to “flawlessly execute our regional conference to present a highly professional image of our organization, provide high-quality training sessions that keep attendees engaged, ensure that all sessions and logistics run smoothly, and receive at least 90% positive feedback on evaluation forms from both presenters and participants.” This is largely qualitative, but it still establishes a bar for expectations and create a standard by which reasonable people should be able to agree on whether or not the goal has been met.

4. What happens if we don’t meet goals, especially stretch goals?

The answer is more art than science, as there is a delicate balance between rewarding risk and ambition on the one hand and ensuring that staff members take goals seriously on the other. When a staff member sets a goal representing dramatic progress, there needs to be an implicit understanding that the task is difficult. Even in failing to meet the goal, the staff member could make significant progress, which merits reward rather than rebuke. At the same time, failure to meet a goal should cause reflection on what could be done differently going forward, and a pattern of failing to meet goals over time should be cause for concern.

Additionally, when thinking about stretch goals, it’s important to realize that the fundamental question to ask at the end of the year is, “How do we feel about the results we produced?” In the case of a particularly ambitious goal, you might answer that question differently than you might answer a question that was simply about whether the goal was met. Even if you didn’t make it all the way to the finish line for a stretch goal, you might have still obtained great results … and particularly from a performance evaluation perspective, you want the focus on the results themselves.

5. Is it realistic to set longer-term goals during a very fast-moving campaign where things are constantly changing?

If you’re operating in an environment that’s changing quickly and where you’re still sorting out how you’ll make the biggest impact, you might consider modifying your approach to goal-setting in the following ways:

  • Set and review progress against goals on a shorter cycle (every three or six months – or even every month, depending on your context).  Establish regular review meetings and simple tracking systems to support this faster cycle.
  • Since you’re operating with greater uncertainty, embrace subjective criteria for goals, such as “Maximize opportunities that come at us to …”
  • If you’re in an intensive building stage, your goals might focus more on activities than outcomes for the first year or two (for instance, “get website up and running by November” versus “build website into a hub that generates 20,000 hits a month”).
  • Recognize that shifts in goals may happen, but make them explicit! Don’t allow them to just happen on their own – and make sure to distinguish between distractions and true changes in direction that require adjusting your targets.

6. How should the process of setting goals work?

As your staff members propose their goals and tactics, you should engage rigorously to test their thinking, to ensure goals truly are SMART, and to challenge the assumptions underlying them. For instance, if your development director proposes a goal of 50% growth in annual revenue, you’ll want to understand what she will do that is different from prior years to produce that growth before you sign off on the goal – since without a plan to reach the target, the goal is merely wishful thinking and thus fails the “realistic” piece of SMART. Similarly, let’s say your development director proposes a goal to increase the number of “members” who donate $50 over the Internet. You, however, think the energy should be going to high net worth donors, so the two of you need to work that out. A significant part of the power of goals, in fact, comes not from the final words on the page, but rather from the process of alignment that results from real discussion around what you expect your staff members to accomplish.

7. My staff member is great at her work but struggles to write goals. Should I just write them for her?

The good news here is that a significant part of the power of creating goals comes from the process of alignment that results from real discussion around what staff members should accomplish in the upcoming year – which is a process your staff member can be heavily involved in, even if she struggles when it comes time to put words down on paper. So ideally you’d sit down with your staff member and talk through what the upcoming year should look like – what will she need to accomplish to make the year a success? A year from now, when you and she are looking back at what she accomplished, what would be the difference between an okay job and a great one?

From there, you might propose goals based on that conversation, and go back and forth with your staffer to refine them, as well as to challenge the assumptions behind the goals and ensure realistic plans are in place to achieve them.

(If your staff member should ultimately grow into a position where she’s formulating goals on her own – for example, because she’s managing a team of her own – it likely makes sense to coach her in the process of writing them as well. But otherwise, the essential part is that she’s part of the conversation that takes place before and while her goals are being created, even if you’re better suited to word them.)