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Blockbuster goals might (theoretically) bust fundraising blocks, but SMART goals are (actually) far more effective.

The annual goal-setting ritual can feel like another opportunity to set targets that, deep down, you don’t truly expect to hit. Your ambitions may satisfy your manager, your board, or your own deepest dreams—but how many of us forget our New Year’s goals by Valentine’s Day?

Big but unrealistic goals might sound great—and check a box—but they don’t do anyone any favors. Your goals are only as useful as they are realistic.

I recommend utilizing the “SMART” goal method to set goals that you not only can hit, but want to hit. The SMART framework involves settings goals that are closely connected to your organization’s mission and fit five key characteristics. Your goals should be: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.


“Specific” means that the goals are articulated clearly and focus on a specific topic. You should be able to articulate each component as a distinct task that you will accomplish. In fundraising, you always want to raise more money, but this is not specific enough to be actionable.

A more specific goal would be something along the lines of “grow our cohort of donors giving more than $1,000 per year from 50 to 70 members.” Keeping your goals specific lets other characteristics function properly.


“Measurable” is one of the most important qualities of SMART goals. Forget vagaries; you must be able to define and quantify what success means for each goal. Words such as “improve,” “streamline,” “boost,” or “revise” have no place in your goals. “More” does not entail a dollar amount.

Focus instead on providing metrics that you are aiming to hit. If you have larger projects that you want to accomplish during the year, break each project down into distinct tasks that must be finished. You can then measure the success of your goal by completing each task on time. As in the example above, growing from 50 to 70 major donors is measurable. Or, say, increasing your retention rate from 52% to 54%—also measurable.


“Attainable” means that you have a reasonable chance of reaching your goal. When setting goals, your aim should not be to wow your boss or excite your board; you should strive to set goals that you are confident you can hit. Being able to show a list of 100% complete goals at the end of the year is far more impressive than a list of overly ambitious goals at the start!


“Relevant” means that your goals are aligned with your organization’s strategic priorities. Whether or not you have a formal, written strategic plan (which you should!), your organization certainly has some (at least implicit) strategies or plans. Realistic goal setting is an opportunity to put your organization-wide goals into practice. Try to connect each goal to the strategic priorities of your organization or at least your area of work.

For instance, if you’re a major gifts officer, increasing overall donor retention is not relevant to your work, whereas increasing retention or upgrades (by a specific and measurable amount) in your caseload is relevant. Similarly, if you work in direct mail, improving major-donor upgrades isn’t relevant to you, but increasing average gift size in the housefile is.


“Time-bound,” along with measurable, is one of the most important factors to apply to your goals in order to make them actionable and keep yourself accountable.

Every single goal and goal component should have a deadline. While the overall workload of your goals should be reasonable, the timeline should be aggressive. I would encourage you to avoid the urge to set goals with a Q4 deadline, because you are almost guaranteed to forget them as soon as the end-of-year fundraising rush hits. Set your latest deadline as the end of the third quarter. Even if you miss the deadline, if you’re being aggressive, you will land a couple of weeks late instead of being stuck with a pile of non-revenue-generating tasks at the end of December.


Now that you know what SMART goals are, the next question is how to develop them. I recommend using assumptive goal setting. Use your firmwide strategic priorities, create a clear vision for what your organization should look like by the end of the year, and determine what role you will play in that success. This gives you a starting place for your high-level goals. From there, break your tasks down into SMART goal components that fit each of the five aforementioned SMART characteristics.

As an example, let’s say that you are the director of development for a large nonprofit. Your ultimate department directive may be to move your revenue from $8 million last year to $10 million this year. By getting a clear idea of where you need to be, you can work backwards to figure out how you can move from your current position. Here’s an example of how that might work:

  • Last year, 40 foundations grants accounted for $4M in revenue; 300 major donors gave a total of $3M; and your remaining $1M came from approximately 5,000 low-dollar donors.
  • You can accomplish your goal by raising revenue from foundation grants to $5 million, major donors to $3.75M, and low-dollar donors to $1.25M.
  • The SMART goal component is breaking each of those three moves into its constituent actions:
    • You need to win 10 additional foundation grants. If you tend to have a 25% win-rate with mission-aligned foundations, your teams needs to submit 40 additional grant proposals over the course of the year. Break that down (with some rounding) to 5 proposals per month from January to September.
    • For your major donors, you need to either prospect or upgrade an additional 75 donors giving an average of $10,000 each. Assume that 25 of those will come from your current low-dollar donor list, 25 will be significant upgrades from current donors, and 25 will be new prospects. That means that each month, you’ll need to win 3 new prospects, upgrade 3 current low-dollar donors, and significantly increase the giving of 3 current major donors. Your components would then be the activities needed to accomplish each of those tasks.
    • Finally, the low-dollar donors. You’ll need to increase revenue from your housefile by 25%. You might increase your acquisition efforts to bring in more donors; send mail more frequently to increase the number of giving opportunities; or introduce strategies to increase the average gift.

By using SMART goals, you can take a huge leap toward attaining your goals—assuming you have the staff and knowledge to execute them. By using this model, you can solidify a vague “improve” directive with time-bound measures that can lead your career and mission to success throughout the year.

Even if you have already started the year, try using SMART goals to break down your intentions for this year! You can always adjust your goals at the year progresses. Goalsetting is not—or should not be—a meaningless exercise, but rather a way to break down major and important responsibilities into day-by-day tasks with a sense of momentum and accomplishment.

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