July 13, 2022

Are We as SMART as We Think We Are?

Who doesn’t like a pithy mnemonic to help remember important concepts? The kiss principle reminds us that simple is always better than complicated, while the fictitious Roy G. Biv helps us remember the colors of the light spectrum.

One enduring mnemonic in my domain as a nonprofit strategist is the SMART goal. Although there is some variation, most often a SMART goal is described as specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound. This traditional definition has its place. For example, if your goal is to purchase a new smartphone, it is helpful to identify how much money you need to save, where you need to cut back in order to save that amount, and by what date you would like to purchase the phone.

The benefit of a SMART goal is made clear in this example. It is the difference between a vague notion that someday you would like to own a new smartphone and a more detailed plan to achieve the outcome. The problem is that the SMART goal model does not hold up as well when applied to organizational life.

The nonprofit environment is messy, unpredictable, and partially unknowable. Does this mean that we give up goals altogether? I think not. However, we do need a better way of formulating organization goals. In light of the complexity of our nonprofit world, I offer an updated version of the SMART goal.

Strategic – The traditional SMART goal has a pre-determined (and usually a short-term) time horizon. And because it usually focuses on a tactic, it is easy to zero in with great specificity (e.g., “identify ten new major donor prospects in six months”). Strategic goals, by contrast, focus on a broad, longer-term priorities that support strategic movement (e.g., “lessen dependence on foundation grants”). As such, it is possible to reach a specific goal and miss the larger strategic goal.

Malleable – We’ve all heard the maxim, “what is measured is what gets done”. But what if you are measuring the wrong things? To the point, adherence to a short-term, tactical goal can become the goal in itself. When we fetishize goals, we sacrifice the opportunities to learn and adjust as we go and ultimately attain the longer-term strategic goal. Sometimes, meaningful progress occurs only after you realize that your chosen tactic – what you have mistaken for the actual goal – simply is not the right one.

Aspirational – The difference between a goal that is attainable and one that is aspirational is the difference between means and ends. It is relatively easy to identify and approach ten potential major donors. But this is a means to a larger, more aspirational end. Focusing on the aspiration behind the tactic encourages adaptation, improvisation, and innovation that fits well in an environment that is riddled with ambiguity.

Relevant – I am willing to let this one stand under one condition: you must answer the question, ‘relevant to what’. For me, strategic goals are relevant if they are aimed at strengthening the nonprofit’s ability to create greater mission impact in the most sustainable manner. It is incumbent upon nonprofit executives to formulate a logic that connects the allocation of resources to one or both of these outcomes.

Tentative – This one gives MBAs and CPAs the heebie-jeebies. As much as we take comfort in believing otherwise, goals are not real. They are constructions of the human mind rooted in what economists call bounded rationality. We simply lack the capacity and time to gather all the available information that makes it possible to hit a bull’s eye every time. The best we can do is formulate a hypothesis and test it in the real world. Like any good scientist, we must be willing abandon our pre-conceived ideas when we are smacked in the face by the reality of things.


The last thing we need is another mnemonic for goal setting. What we need desperately is a new way to think about setting organizational goals in a strategic context. Goals are important and should be part of any organizational planning process. What I am advocating for is an approach the recognizes the need for stability in providing guidance while allowing the flexibility to respond to an unpredictable and ever-changing nonprofit environment.

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If you are interested in going deeper into your nonprofit strategy or if you wish to review your organizational strategy more broadly, click the link below to schedule a 30-minute phone or zoom consultation with Mike Stone.

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