Monday, September 28, 2015

Goals Define How Much You'll Move the Needle

Two weeks ago I provided an example of an Operational Plan, the new term I've introduced in my association to describe a document owned by me and my staff. Comprised of three distinct elements, each one nesting in the one that precedes it, our Operational Plan describes how the association will go about achieving the success metrics identified by our Board of Directors.

This week I want to spend a little more time talking about the first and highest of the three elements: the goals.

I've already written about our success indicators, the final element of our Board's Strategy Agenda, and to which our goals, the first element of our Operational Plan, are linked. As I've written before, if the success indicators are the gauges that measure key areas of organizational performance, the goals are the distance we want to move the needles on those gauges in a given plan cycle.

Here's the concrete example I previously provided. One of our success indicators is "Industry Donations: The number of NFPA Foundation donors and the amount of total donations that support fluid power education and research in universities is increasing," and the goal that we've linked to it is "Compared to last fiscal year, increase the number of Foundation donors from 154 to 160, and the amount of donations received from $817,000 to $828,000."

The piece of the puzzle that I want to dig into more deeply here is how important it is, in my opinion, for the Board to have free reign in determining the success indicators, but how equally important it is for the staff executive to have free reign in setting the associated goals. This may sound like heresy to some, stripping the Board of its power to hold the executive accountable for performance, but in my experience, it is the rare Board that understands the on-the-ground environment enough to set realistic goals.

Take the example I provided above. By identifying donors and donations as indicators closely associated with organizational success, the Board has already exerted tremendous influence over what the focus of staff activity is going to be. We are going to be fundraisers and, indeed, in the three years since this indicator was first identified, my organization has been building an increasing staff infrastructure around that function.

But building that infrastructure, and determining how successful it can be, has to be the job of the staff executive. In our case, once the Board had identified fundraising as key to our overall success, I had to take a hard look at the capacity of the organization to do it. In that first year, there was frankly very little capacity. Our Foundation was four years old, and a few dozen members were writing three- or four-digit checks in support of it. Knowing that this was not enough to fund the strategic objectives of the organization, the Board could have given me a goal in that first year, a goal to double or even triple donations, but it is unlikely that we would have been successful. Such a goal, relatively easy to toss off at a Board meeting, would have been unconnected to the reality of the organization. We were already raising as much money as we could with the fundraising mechanisms that we had.

What was needed, and what I identified as the goal in that first year, was to build new fundraising mechanisms and capabilities within the association. Instead of raising more money, we actually had to spend more money so that we could start raising more money in the future.

It was not what the Board would have chosen on its own, but it was what was needed at that moment, and it is only the staff executive that can see that landscape and make those kinds of calls.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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