Common Pitfalls With Setting Nonprofit Key Results

Your nonprofit’s strategies outline your vision for the near-term future, but what helps your organization and team bring them to life are great accountability systems. At Prosper Strategies, we use objectives and key results (OKRs) to help the organizations we work with operationalize their marketing, fundraising and strategic plans. 

Objectives are specific descriptions of the most important things your nonprofit needs to accomplish for each one of its strategic pillars (aka goals), but it’s key results that really allow nonprofits to track and measure their successes. While they are a critical part of the strategic process, many teams fail to set them or set them well. 

Today, I’ll review common challenges and obstacles nonprofit teams experience when setting key results.

Setting vague key results for your nonprofit plan

The most common mistake I see when teams sit down to create key results is that they are too vague. For example, a key result might read:

KR 1: Update our onboarding materials so they are consistent across departments.

The success or failure of this key result is open to interpretation. One person may think this means updating the employee handbook, while another might believe it’s about the 2-day new hire training materials. A good rule of thumb is that any person within your organization should be able to look at a key result and know exactly what needs to be accomplished and by when. A better iteration of this key result might read:

KR 1: Update our employee handbook to reflect our new nonprofit core values by the end of Q1 2023.

This key result describes exactly what needs to be done and by when, leaving no room for confusion. Anyone at this nonprofit should be able to read it, understand it and know whether or not it was accomplished by the end of the first quarter of 2023.

Frontloading deadlines for your nonprofit’s key results

The second most common mistake nonprofits make is setting all of their key result deadlines for the first quarter or two of their plan. While this may be okay when it comes to marketing and fundraising strategies, which tend to operate under shorter planning timelines, it becomes much more challenging when you’re setting key results for a three-year strategic plan.

If your nonprofit is stumbling on this roadblock, consider zooming out and looking across all of your objectives and identifying a timeline for those before going in to set your key results. By understanding which objectives are urgent to complete versus those that are important to complete, you can properly space your key results so that you’re not overwhelming your team, and you’re also remaining on track to reach each one of your objectives.

Assigning more than one key result owner

Nonprofit leaders are by nature collaborative. It’s part of what makes them successful in the field. This is why as teams begin reviewing who should own which key results, they tend to want to list more than one person.

While teamwork can make the dream work, assigning one key result owner ensures there is no confusion about who is ultimately responsible for seeing it through. That person can then lead the effort on bringing other team members into the work to ensure the result is achieved.

Failing to balance outputs-oriented and outcomes-oriented OKRs

Output-oriented key results describe the key milestones that need to be hit in the process of accomplishing the objective. For example:

  • Conduct a feasibility study to identify the 20 best communities to expand to by 2022

Outcome-oriented key results describe the measurable change that occurs in the process of working toward the objective. They describe growth, optimization or improvement. For example:

  • Expand the number of regional resource centers from 5 to 10 by 2023
  • Expand the number of regional resource centers from 5 to 15 by 2025

It can be tempting to simply break each objective into a set of milestones, which become output-oriented key results, but doing that alone will make it difficult to measure how things are changing as the result of your work, and misses the opportunity to meaningfully tie OKRs to measurable mission advancement. Aim to include at least one outcome-oriented key result for every objective in your plan. 

Treating key results as tasks or activities and excluding a time-bound measure

Key results are quantitative, measurable and time-bound, but some teams fall into the trap of just listing tasks or activities rather than outcomes or even outputs. For example, a nonprofit might want to add programming, and in order to do so, they have an objective of conducting a community needs assessment to determine what programs are needed most. If they start listing things like creating the assessment, distributing the assessment or analyzing the results of the assessment, they are listing activities. The key result should actually be about identifying the community need, so something like, “Conduct a community needs assessment to inform the addition of 2 new programs by 2025,” would be more appropriate.

Key results are quantitative, measurable and time-bound, but some teams fall into the trap of just listing tasks or activities rather than outcomes or even outputs. Click To Tweet

Additionally, every key result, whether outcome or output-oriented, not only needs an accountability owner but also a timeframe by which it must be completed. Simple metrics, such as by the end of 2023 or by the end of Q1, help to ensure your plans stay on track.

Becoming overwhelmed

Setting pillars and objectives is the fun, visionary part of marketing, fundraising and strategic planning, but key results are where the rubber meets the road. Your key results articulate how you’re going to bring that planned vision to life. 

However, setting them is where things become overwhelming for most nonprofit teams. Now you have a lot you need to do to put the wheels in motion. 

Setting pillars and objectives is the fun, visionary part of marketing, fundraising and strategic planning, but key results are where the rubber meets the road. Click To Tweet

A few things to remember:

  1. Each objective should have no more than 5 key results.
  2. As you’re setting accountabilities, do your best to spread the work out across your team members, so no one person is responsible for too much.
  3. As previously mentioned, ensure that your key results aren’t front-loaded and that they consider the timeframe of the entire plan (not just the upcoming quarter or year).
  4. Don’t overthink your key results so much that you experience analysis paralysis – they need to be quantitative, measurable and time-bound – but they will also be re-evaluated regularly. If key results need to be updated or changed, that’s okay too.
  5. If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, you may need to revisit the feasibility of your pillars (priorities) or objectives themselves.

If your organization is ready to set effective pillars, objectives and key results, check out our how-to guide on the topic for more information. And here’s to putting your marketing, fundraising and strategic plans into action!

Leave a Comment