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How to Use Nonprofit Goals, Strategies, and Objectives to Achieve Outcomes

Getting lost in all the terminology of nonprofit planning is easy. Here are brief definitions of four common terms — goals, strategies, objectives, and outcomes — using a simple example of traveling from Chicago to New York to attend a professional conference:

  • Goals are your organization’s aspirations. Goals can be set at the organizational level, the program or department level, or the individual employee level. Using a road trip as an analogy, a goal is traveling from Chicago to New York.

  • Strategies are approaches or ways to achieve goals. Usually, more than one option exists. You can travel to New York by several methods: plane, train, automobile, bicycle, or on foot. After considering the costs, your schedule, and your hiking ability, you decide to travel by car.

  • Objectives are smaller steps that one must accomplish to reach a goal, and they’re always stated in a way that can be measured. So on a trip from Chicago to New York, an objective may be to drive 325 miles on the first day. When you pull into the motel parking lot, you can check your odometer to see whether you’ve achieved your objective.

  • Outcomes describe the results of reaching a goal. In this example, you reach the goal — New York — and learn useful information at your conference.

To see how all four terms come into play, look at the example of a development plan. Reading from top to bottom, you have the whole plan, from organizational goal to outcome.

Development Plan Example
Organizational goal Diversify income
Strategy Increase individual contributed income
Strategic goal Develop a reliable annual campaign
Objective 1 Compile prospect list with your board’s help
Objective 2 Create appeal letter
Objective 3 Mail appeal letters containing personal notes from board members
Outcome Organization is less dependent on a single funder

Don’t get bogged down in terms. How you label the different steps in your plan is less important than clarifying what you need to accomplish and the steps you’ll take to succeed.

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