Setting Bold Goals Can Be Transformative

July 1, 2009       Cass Wheeler      

You have a mission statement, but do you have a sense of mission that ignites the passion of your volunteers and staff? Mission statements are general by nature and sometimes become stale and taken for granted. Could that be the case for your organization?

Regardless, explore the possibility of setting a bold goal which extends your mission statement and you will reinvigorate your organization. You will also find it transformative.

A mission statement goes only so far. At the time the American Heart Association (AHA) set its bold goal, its mission was “to reduce disability and death from cardiovascular disease and stroke.” The bold, breakthrough goal was established “to reduce coronary heart disease, stroke and risk by 25 percent by the year 2010.”

Think about your organization’s mission and what a bold goal might look like. How would you engage your organization and its constituencies in setting such a goal? It’s not enough to have a bold goal, but you have to have broad organizational buy-in and commitment. Here are just some of the benefits you will experience:

  • It will drive the development of your strategic and tactical plans to greater specificity to reach interim benchmarks. Bold goals cannot be reached in a single giant step. You will need to outline a road map and develop well thought out strategies for how you get from point A to point B to point C, etc. It also forces development of better measurements for interim and ultimate success.
  • It will drive you along the continuum of what you measure. Every organization should be on the journey of ultimately measuring outcomes. What do we mean by outcomes?

Let’s define some terms and give an example.

Input can be defined as dollars and staff. There are then activities that can be described as what you do followed by outputs, which measure participation. Outcomes, however, are what you actually accomplish. Let’s say your organization runs a jobs training program. Activities might be the number of classes you conduct in a year, output might be the attendance during the same time period, but ultimately what really matters are the outcomes. How many people are actually getting jobs?

Activity and output numbers might be high but that doesn’t matter if participants are not getting jobs. Chances are your goal will not be bold unless it focuses on outcomes.

  • It will force you out of your comfort zones and encourage creativity. A bold goal is by its nature a stretch goal. It cannot be accomplished with a “business as usual” mentality. Your organization will have to answer the question: What will it take to do x, y and z?

At the AHA, it forced everyone to look at new opportunities and recognize the group could continue saving one life at a time or it could focus on changing entire systems and save thousands of lives at a time. There was also the realization that the organization couldn’t do it alone, which resulted in forming strategic alliances with other nonprofits, government and for profits.

The “what would it take” question also applies to fundraising. Years ago, a question was posed to the Walk team: What would it take to raise $30 million from the walk? Since the organization was currently raising $12 million, the immediate reactions were all the reasons it couldn’t be done. When I insisted that there must be some way and surely it wasn’t impossible, they ultimately came back with not only a plan but with a slogan “30 in 30” — $30 million in 30 months. It actually was accomplished in 18 months. As reaching the goal became close, you can imagine the next question: what would it take to raise $100 million?

  • You will automatically have more discipline in your decision-making processes. When there is competition for limited resources (and isn’t there always), you can now ask which of the projects to be funded will contribute the most to your bold goal. It will be easier for you to say “no” to lower priority or pet projects resulting in greater focus and strategic alignment of resources.
  • It will give you additional reasons to streamline the bureaucracy and purge unnecessary programs and activities to get the greatest amount of resources allocated to the bold goal.
  • It will reframe and give additional meaning to your volunteers, staff and donors. In reality, most grassroots volunteers and staff probably didn’t even know the AHA mission statement, but they all knew, understood and remembered the 25 percent goal.
  • It will generate a sense of urgency about what you are trying to accomplish and by when. AHA volunteers knew what they were doing was important but now they understood what they were doing was to drive toward the 25-percent reduction and save people’s lives. It created a new context for their work.

What you ultimately want is reminiscent of an old story. A man walked up to a construction site and saw several people laying bricks. He went over to the first brick layer and asked what he was doing and he replied: “Can’t you see, I’m laying bricks.” The visitor went down the line and asked another the same question and he responded: “I’m building a cathedral.” Ultimately, you want all of your volunteers, staff and donors building cathedrals and setting a bold goal can move you closer to that point. NPT

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Cass Wheeler is the former longtime chief executive officer of the American Heart Association. His new book is titled “You’ve Gotta Have Heart: Achieving Purpose Beyond Profit In The Social Sector.”