How to Get Your Nonprofit from Surviving to Thriving

Getting Your Nonprofit out of Survival Mode

Is your nonprofit stuck in survival mode?

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Planning is key, but taking the time to do it is where you need to start (refer to Ep. 15 to see how to set a schedule). Once you have taken the time and have reviewed your previous year, it is time to set your goals, objectives, and activities, so you can go from struggling to thriving.

So what the heck are the differences between goals, objectives, and activities?

Goals are the overarching result that you want to achieve. The goal is comparable to a large globe of aspirational destinations you want to reach.
Objectives are the tangible flights or boats on how you are going to reach those places.
Activities are how you do the day-to-day work of saving up for your trip.

A goal might be for your nonprofit to end homelessness in your city. Objectives would then be what specific actions you need to take to end homelessness, and may start with reducing the rise of homelessness. Activities would be the day-to-day steps to fulfill your objectives.

How to Identify Your Goal

The steps to identifying your nonprofit’s goal includes the following:

1) Make sure it aligns with your mission and vision statement

2) Use emotional language

3) Think conceptually and do not limit creative thoughts and lofty aspirations

4) Make sure it serves a purpose (meet the needs of your demographic)

The goal will serve as future milestone for your nonprofit with a large impact on your community.

Once you have defined this goal, then it is important to map out your objectives.

How to Map Out Your Objectives

Objectives are very specific ways to reach your goal (or milestones along the), and work best when they are S.M.A.R.T.: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.

For example, a goal might be: “To end homelessness in the city of Groovy land.”

Under this goal, and objective might be: “By the end of 12 months, Groovy nonprofit will conduct a comprehensive needs assessment among 1200 homeless individuals in Groovy land, helping to evaluate their needs.”

(S) Specific: Groovy nonprofit will conduct a comprehensive needs assessment for a specific (1200) number of homeless individuals.

(M) Measurable: 1200 homeless individuals will be included in the comprehensive needs assessment.

(A) Achievable: This would have to also be supported in your activities – i.e. do you have the manpower and budget to conduct the needs assessment and what percentage of the population is 1200?

(R) Relevant: This relates to the overall goal, as first you would need to identify the needs of the homeless to actually end homelessness.

(T) Time-Bound: You will complete this needs assessment by the end of 12 months.

So there, you have a goal and one objective to reach this goal.

How many objectives should we have?

Normally, you would want about three to five objectives per year, that reach different items in your goal. If you have a lot more than that, it may lead to your staff running in many different directions at the same time and bumping into one another on occasion. But, this also depends on the size of your nonprofit. For example, you may have three to five objectives per department if you have a large team.

A way to examine if you have too many objectives or too few would be through evaluation. After a certain time period, say three months, you will want to review progress on your objectives. If you have not completed the necessary headway to meet your objective, then your team will have to see if it is because you have too many objectives or not enough attention is being given to the objectives.

The thing is, you may take a day and draft out a beautiful goal and absolutely perfect objectives. But if you don’t actually perform the day-to-day grind of activities then you wasted a day.

The Best Way to List Your Activities and Get Them Done

Your activities will be the small steps that you need to achieve in order to reach your objective. You will list activities and sub-activities for each objective. This includes the individuals responsible for each task and their deadlines.

This chart should be reviewed during your monthly staff meetings at the very least. If you, the person responsible are not completing their task (if the deadline is for that month) then you can quickly find out why and put into place a plan for assistance. If you find that most staff are caught up in the daily grind and not making their tasks a priority, you might consider the following:

1) Is the task really a way to meet the objective?

2) Is the objective a priority in meeting your goal?

3) Does that person understand that this task is important in reaching the overall goal?

4) Does the person responsible need assistance?

5) Does the person responsible need to continue to work at your nonprofit?

The answers to numbers one and two should be yes if you have actually defined your goal and objectives with the above formula. That leaves questions three to five as the ones that need to be addressed. If you answered ‘no’ to number three, then a way to potentially make this a ‘yes’ is to make sure you include this individual to your planning session where you identified the goal, objectives, and activities. Sure, they may have been hired afterward, but then you should make sure you communicate your company culture, so they understand the importance of what you do.

If you answered ‘yes’ to number four, then identify who can help that person in completing their activity. Maybe a board member, intern, or volunteer. It could be something that could be delegated to another staff member. Or, if they really are the person who should complete this specific activity, then perhaps delegate some of their other ‘busy’ work to others. There are options.

Number five is a hard, but necessary question to ask. Maybe this person just does not really jive with your company culture as they have their own agenda and don’t buy into the overall goal and objectives of your nonprofit. If they don’t, then it will be easier to let them go after three or six months, rather then let it drag on for a couple of years without really having a clear reason to let them go. For instance, they may still be getting other work done, but you know something doesn’t jive and just can’t put your finger on it.

Outlining activities can be as simple as creating a graph and reviewing on a consistent basis. These are small bites to help reach your objective.

Activities Person Responsible Deadline
Hire a Researcher Executive Director By the end of one month
Formulate an evidence-based needs assessment Researcher By the end of three months
Submit the needs assessment for IRB approval Researcher By the end of three months
Reach out to community partners to get input and collaborate Executive Director Monthly – at coalition meetings
Recruit 10 interns to assist with surveys and focus groups Researcher By the end of four months
Start surveying and focus groups Researcher and interns By the end of five months
Survey 200 homeless individuals per month Researcher and interns By the end of 11 months
Write a report with all findings Researcher and interns By the end of 12 months
Publish report Researcher By the end of 12 months

You could even break this down with sub-activities so that you have weekly tasks. This is really important in being able to reach your objective and begin to tap into your goal.

There you have it. If you have an aspirational goal, S.M.A.R.T. objectives, and detailed (and actionable) activities, then you will make major strides towards impacting your community! Your staff will feel accomplished having completed productive items and feeling a sense of making a true impact, compared to being in survival mode and feeling overwhelmed. This is so true! You CAN be a thriving nonprofit and really make an impact by using a simple system.

I hope this helps your nonprofit to be more productive.


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