7 Tips For Getting Started With Goal-Setting

Last updated: May 3, 2021
Estimated reading time: 5 min


Goals are the driving force behind results, but goal-setting can feel laborious and unwieldy. Whether you’re working on goals at the organizational, team, or individual level, follow these tips to get past the pain points and ease the process. Then, check out our other goal-setting tools and resources to get started.

1. Get SMARTIE.

SMARTIE stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely, Inclusive, and Equitable—all characteristics of a well-crafted goal. Approaching goal-setting with a SMARTIE lens is an important practice for every person regardless of your role, tenure, or identity. Refer to our SMARTIE Goals Worksheet, our article on embedding inclusion and equity in your goals, and goals bank to help you write SMARTIE goals.

2. Don’t start with a blank slate.

Unless you’re setting goals for the very first time, you will have some documents to lean on, such as your strategic plan, organizational or team goals, or your job description. Whether you’re setting organizational, team, or individual goals, refer to last year’s goals as your starting point—unless you’ve drastically changed your strategy or priorities, you’ll likely find a few that you can revise and use.

For example, let’s say your goal for talent was “Fill all open positions by December 31, where all new hires come from a pool in which at least one finalist candidate identifies as a person of color.” If you achieved the goal this year, you could update it with “Complete all new staff onboarding by March 31, with no gaps in satisfaction across race/ethnicity or level of hire.” If you had “Get at least 10 media mentions in Tier 1 publications” as a goal and this is an effort you want to continue in the coming year, keep it as-is or update it to “Increase the number of Tier 1 media mentions to X.”

3. Ask for input.

Like swimming in open water, there are some things you shouldn’t do on your own. Especially for organizational and team goals, seeking perspective from other people will help make your goals sharper.

Before finalizing your goals, seek perspective in any (or all) of the following ways:

  • Talk to people who will be on the MOCHAs for accomplishing them—especially owners and helpers.
  • Get feedback (or use past feedback) from people who will be directly impacted by the outcomes of your goals.
  • Check in with your manager or team lead (or someone who may have more of a bird’s-eye view) about whether your goals make sense within the broader context of the work and organization.

For example, let’s say you are the leader of a team and your goal is to train at least 2,500 people (of which 40% identify as BIPOC) through your leadership development programs by the end of the year. Here are the people you might have checked in with before finalizing this goal:

  • The training logistics lead to talk through potential obstacles and their mitigations, especially if 2,500 represents a significant increase in participants.
  • The owner of outreach and recruitment to talk through tactics that could help you reach the 40% BIPOC number.
  • Trainers, about the potential increase in workload and capacity needs.

Check out tip #6 for questions you can ask to get the most helpful input!

4. Embrace placeholders.

Many managers get stuck trying to craft precise goals on the first try. Don’t worry about the exact numbers just yet; describe them qualitatively at first, using placeholders for numbers until you get a better sense of the results you need.

For example, one qualitative outcome might be to get more small-dollar donations to complement your big donor fundraising as a way to diversify your funding streams and build community engagement. Your draft goal might be: “Increase the number of small-dollar donations to build more community engagement and manage risk with big donor funding.” You may later fill in the “increase the number of” with specifics, such as “Double the number of small-donor donations” or “Raise $X from small donors.”

5. Make sure they cascade, connect, and add up.

Every organizational goal should “cascade” to the team and individual levels of the organization so that each piece of the work and results is accounted for and owned by someone. Conversely, every individual should be able to trace their goals to at least one organizational priority or goal. As the leader of the team or organization, ask yourself: Do the component parts add up to the sum total we are aiming to achieve?

For example, if you have an organizational goal of training at least 2,500 people (of which 40% identify as BIPOC) through your leadership development program, one way this goal might cascade is that your program team will own developing and delivering content while your operations team will own training logistics. If you get to the individual level, you might have each trainer own a specific number of trainings per year with target numbers for registration.

6. Use litmus test questions.

Ask yourself (and others!) questions to test how SMARTIE your goals are:

  • Will achieving this goal represent significant progress towards our mission?
  • Does this goal or its tactics mitigate potential inequities in the outcomes and/or process? Does it advance equity and inclusion in the outcomes and/or process?
  • Did I get input from people who will be impacted by the process or the outcomes? If not, who do I still need to consult with?
  • Are the measures of success for this goal clear?
  • Is there a deadline for this goal?
  • Do we currently (or plan to) have the capacity, systems, and processes needed to achieve this goal?
  • (For individual goals) Can I connect each of my goals to an organizational or team goal?

7. Schedule stepbacks.

Goals are useless if you don’t use them as the north star to guide your actions and make course corrections. Do quarterly or mid-year stepbacks to see how you are doing and what, if anything, needs to change.


Check out some other important resources for setting goals:

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