Frequently Asked Questions about Setting and Using Goals

Last updated: April 25, 2021
Estimated reading time: 4 min

Here are some questions you might have about setting and using goals.

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

In general, we recommend no more than three to five major goals for each person or department. Going slightly over this (say, to eight) isn’t a disaster, but having way too many—we’ve seen organizations in which one person might have 32 significant goals for the year—means you can’t truly focus on many of them.

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. Still, ultimately you want them to focus on a single bottom-line goal for total 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%.

2. How should the process of setting goals work?

This depends on context. The following chart can help you decide what process to use:

Use this when…

Write them yourself: You write the first draft and explain the rationale. Then, your staff asks questions and makes suggestions, and you align on the end product.

You have strong opinions about what the goals should be and/or the other person lacks the context or knowledge to take on a first draft.

Explain your choices and ask the staff member to offer thoughts/feedback.

Delegate to owner: The owner writes the first draft, you provide feedback, and you align on the end product.

The person has been in the role for a while (or has done similar work), and has the context and knowledge to write a solid first draft.

Be clear upfront about who the final decision-maker is and share any initial thoughts you have so they’re incorporated. Once they’ve completed the first draft, share your feedback and ask probing questions to get aligned.

Collaborate: Engage in a collaborative process (lock yourself in a room and knock it out).

It’s a new goal or initiative, or you’re both unsure and you need to puzzle through it together from the start.

Be clear on the front end about who the final decision-maker is. Circle back to those whose ideas aren’t represented and explain why you made those choices.

3. What if goals need to change part-way through the year?

In an ideal world, your goals wouldn’t change after you set them because you aimed for a target that is realistic, ambitious, and gets you the results you need to advance your organization’s mission. But, life happens, and extraordinary circumstances may make reaching a goal simply impossible. An organization’s advocacy director might have a practical but ambitious plan this year—until a disaster dramatically shifts the public’s focus. In response, they might shift to focus on laying the groundwork for the future, like building a network of committed grasstops leaders to speak on behalf of the issue next year.

3. What happens if we don’t meet goals (especially stretch goals)?

There is a delicate balance between rewarding risk 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, acknowledge that it’s a stretch goal. You may even want to specify what a minimum level of success would be like, so it’ll be clear if they made reasonable progress even if they don’t meet the stretch goal. For example, if an organizer has a goal to conduct 50 one-on-ones within the first quarter, with a minimum of 30, achieving 40 should merit celebration, not rebuke.

Failure to meet a non-stretch goal should warrant reflection on what they could have done differently and what might need to change moving forward. A pattern of consistently failing to meet goals should be cause for concern.

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 you’re still sorting out how you’ll make the biggest impact, consider modifying your approach to goal-setting in the following ways:

  • Set and review progress on a shorter cycle (every 3-6 months—or even every month, depending on your context). Establish regular review meetings and 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 (“get the 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.

Check out some other important resources for setting goals:

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