Frequently Asked Questions about Setting and Using Goals

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, the number of goals for a person or department should be in the rough range of three to five. Going slightly over this isn’t a disaster, but having too many means that you won’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. But ultimately, you want them to focus on 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 example, while broadly educating the public on your issue is a goal, it represents only 10% of success for the year. Meanwhile, getting your curriculum adopted by a majority of school districts in your state is worth 60%.

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

In general, we don’t recommend changing goals mid-stream. Once you establish a target, your team should commit to doing anything and everything within reason to reach that target. However, extraordinary circumstances may make reaching a goal nearly impossible, in which case, it’d make sense to change the goal. For example, an organization’s advocacy director might have an ambitious agenda that seems achievable at the outset of the year. Then, a major disaster strikes halfway through the year that dramatically shifts the public’s focus, making significant progress unlikely to happen. They might then focus on laying the groundwork for the future, perhaps by building a cadre of committed “grasstops” leaders who would speak on behalf of the issue next year.

3. What happens if we don’t meet goals?

The answer is more art than science. 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. Usually, when a staff member fails to meet a goal, the root causes fall into two broad categories:

  1. Factors beyond the staff person’s control: These could be changes in the external environment (e.g. a major donor’s promised funding for the project didn’t come through) or it could be organizational factors (e.g. the primary helper on their project quit, resulting in the project being late).
  2. Factors within the staff person’s control: These could relate to the staff member’s competencies, effort, time management, prioritization, etc.

Understand the root causes of non-achievement before deciding how to approach it. If it mostly falls into the second group, talk to your staff member about how to turn around their performance. If it falls into the first group, use it as a learning moment to discuss how they could better anticipate risks and develop mitigation plans going forward.

If it was a stretch goal, acknowledge that the task was difficult. Even in failing to meet the goal, if the staff member made significant progress, that’s worth recognizing. When thinking about stretch goals, the fundamental question to ask at the end of the year is, “How do we feel about the results we produced?”

4. How should the process of setting goals work?

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

Context—When to Use
Execution—Get to Success

Write Goals Yourself: You write the first draft (or provide heavy directive guidance) and explain rationale. The staff member can then ask questions and make suggestions, and you align on the end product.

You have strong feelings about what’s right and the other person lacks the context or the skill to take on a first draft.

Share context for your draft (why did you make these choices?). Give an opportunity for the staff member to offer thoughts/feedback to make sure you’re both aligned.

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

Person has been in the role for a while (or has done similar work), and has the context and skills to create a solid first draft.

Be clear up front about who the final decision-maker is and share any thoughts you have so that they’re incorporated and you’re both aligned.

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

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.

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 against goals on a shorter cycle (every three or six 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 website up and running by November” vs. “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.