How to Create Strong Strategic Plan Goals

By Molly Penn

How do you articulate your strategic plan goals so they compel others to join you in your noble quest? It’s a tall order for sure. Yet how many organizations do you know that spend months and months and thousands of dollars only to roll out a plan with … meh goals? We’d bet the answer is too many. We’re setting out to change that.

Can Acronyms Help?

Most people use some form of acronym to guide the writing of good goals, and those are fine, but we’re bucking against the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time Bound) acronym. While Specific and Measurable can be good and important (e.g. increase by how much? Double? Triple?), they belong at the level of objectives, not goals. Evaluating those kinds of plans leads to measuring “did we do what we said we wanted to do?” not “did our efforts make a difference in the issue we were looking to address?”

Strategic Plan Goals Should Be RICH & Poetic:

  1. Relevant

    Strategic plan goals should be relevant to the world around your organization. In order to attract investment, strategic plan goals should speak more to community needs than to the needs of your particular organization. Another way to think of this is to ask yourself if you goals are generous – do they address the needs of those you serve first and foremost?

  2. Inspiring

    The word Inspire literally means to fill someone with the urge to do something. For your organization to marshal the support it will need from others (funders, colleagues, clients, partners) your plan goals should be inspiring and speak to shared aspirations.

  3. Clear

    It is important not to sacrifice clarity in our quest to frame goals that are inspiring. To help ensure clarify, have others read your goals and ask you questions to ensure they understand them. Their questions will give you a good sense of how clear the goal is. For example, “How will you ….” is a better question than “What does this mean?” Ensure your goals paint a clear picture of how the world will look different as a result of your work in this plan.

  4. Hard

    If your goals don’t inspire a little fear or trepidation about how achievable they are, then let’s face it – you’re not stretching far enough. But you don’t want them to be unachievable either. Finding that balance between bold, ambitious and aspirational (on the one hand) and something you can achieve, but only if you really set your mind to it (on the other hand) is the point here.

  5. Poetic

    The best strategic plans have goals that find a way, in one simple sentence, to capture forward momentum and paint a picture of a better world that we want to live in, whether or not we are affected by the needs you exist to serve. This is the magic sauce of strategic plan goals – the thing that makes you want to share them, publish them, post them, tell them to others, shout them from the rooftops … you get the picture.

Some Examples:

Following are some excellent examples from a variety of strategic plans that meet the above criteria of being RICH & Poetic:

  1. Convene nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, grantmakers and impact investors as equal partners in the impact economy.

    (The Support Center for Nonprofit Management, 2017-2021 strategic plan)

  2. Use the power of arts and culture to help make Greater Boston a vibrant and welcoming place to live, work and visit.

    (ArtsBoston strategic plan 2019-2023)

  3. FRAME the conversation, elevate awareness and understanding, and advance compelling evidence and case-making for the essential and contributing role of the creative industries in Michigan’s economy.

    (Creative Many Michigan strategic plan 2016)

  4. Connect people and nature for the benefit of both.

    (Mass Audubon strategic plan 2020)

We won’t be sharing examples of poor strategic plan goals here, since this is not an exercise in calling people out. We will give the following guidelines of what to avoid:

Weak Strategic Plan Goals Are:

  1. Self-referential (and therefore unintelligible or unimportant to outsiders)

    For example, “Expand our brand recognition to position our organization for success” Frankly, who (else) cares about this but you? This helps you but to what end?

  2. Generic (or applicable to any organization)

    For example “Significantly grow our reach and influence” This one is boring, vague and does not connect to any aspect of your organization’s purpose or unique role. I don’t know what this has to do with your vision or mission.

  3. Overly-specific (numbers driven)

    For example, “Build 35 impactful partnerships for the purpose of advancing our vision” Why 35? What happens if you only build 34 – will you fail? What do the numbers have to do with whether they are impactful – that’s the word I’m more interested in!

  4. Just plain boring!

For example, “Change people’s perceptions of the issue of domestic violence” Changing perceptions feels like it won’t do much to end domestic violence, which is the most urgent and pressing need in this area. This doesn’t feel pressing, or relevant or like a cause I would want to join. It feels like playing around the edges of a critical issue instead of getting to the heart of it.

Please note: all of these “weak” goals were entirely fabricated, and are not based on any actual strategic plans of which we are aware. Any resemblance to your organization’s plan is unintentional, but if you see one, give us a call next time!


We do often save one final goal to be the “internal capacity building” goal – it’s okay for that one to be internally focused, as long as it feels like it is in support of a larger story.

Strategic plans follow goals that should inspire your internal and external stakeholders to share your vision of a bold and exciting step forward in terms of your mission and vision. They should motivate stakeholders to get involved and to pay attention to your organization. If you want assistance developing a strong strategic plan, call us to talk about it.

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