How to Set Pillars and OKRs to Move Your Nonprofit’s Mission Forward

13 min read

Pillars and objectives and key results (OKRs) are the two most powerful elements at the heart of every nonprofit strategic plan, marketing plan and fundraising plan we develop. Together, they help organizations focus their efforts and make consistent, meaningful progress toward their missions.

Unfortunately, pillars and OKRs are often misunderstood and misused. This is especially true in the nonprofit sector. OKRs were born in tech, and most of the information available about them on the internet is tailored to tech and for-profit use cases. While basic OKR concepts can be applied in any industry, there are certain tweaks that should be made to them in order to ensure they’re truly useful for social sector organizations.

We created this post (as well as a guide and template OKR dashboard, coming to our site soon) to show your nonprofit exactly how to set and use pillars and OKRs that will help you advance your mission.

This is a long post that includes both basic information and step-by-step instructions for making OKRs work at your organization. I hope you’ll bookmark it and revisit the relevant sections as you begin to work through your own pillars and OKRs.

This post includes four parts:

  • Part One: What are Pillars and OKRs?
  • Part Two: How to Choose Pillars
  • Part Three: How to Set OKRs
  • Part Four: How to Manage OKRs

Are you ready to get started with pillars and OKRs? Let’s dive in.

Part 1: What are Pillars and OKRs?

Pillars

Pillars are the big picture themes around which a nonprofit’s strategic plan, marketing plan or fundraising plan is centered. 

In the case of a strategic plan, they are the key areas your organization must focus on in order to advance its mission and drive toward its vision, no matter what. In the case of a marketing or fundraising plan, they are the key things your marketing team or fundraising team must focus on.

You should have 3-5 pillars in your strategic plan, marketing plan or fundraising plan. Any more than that and you’ll end up overwhelmed and unfocused.

Pillars are expressed in broad, thematic terms. Here are a few examples from real strategic plans we’ve worked on:

  • Enhance operational excellence
  • Strengthen parent/family programming
  • Elevate our brand and thought leadership nationally
  • Scale up our proven program to serve more youth, families and communities

OKRs

As What Matters, the group that pioneered the OKR concept puts it: “OKRs turn missions into milestones.” OKRs are made up of two components:

Objectives (The “What”)

Objectives are specific descriptions of the most important things you need to accomplish under each pillar, over the timeframe you are planning for.

Under each pillar, you should have no more than 3-4 objectives. Objectives should be qualitative and time-bound. 

Key Results (The “How”)

Key results are the benchmarks you can measure that track your progress toward each objective. 

Under each objective, you should have 2-5 key results. Key results must be quantitative and measurable.

Let’s take a look at how this plays out in an example:

As you can see, each key result has a timeline or deadline associated with it. Those deadlines range from one year out to three years out. That’s because this example comes from a three-year strategic plan. Unlike the “traditional” (tech-oriented) approach, which hinges on setting OKRs every single quarter, nonprofits should be open to setting them on a time scale ranging from one year (most common for nonprofit marketing and fundraising plans) to three years (most common for nonprofit strategic plans). That sort of schedule syncs up best with how most nonprofits typically work, and the timeframe most nonprofit strategic plans should be developed for. But don’t worry, using a longer time scale for setting OKRs doesn’t need to hold you back from evolving with the times or working with agility. We’ll discuss that more in Part 4: How to Manage OKRs.

Part 2: How to Choose Pillars

Pillars are typically set in strategic planning sessions, marketing planning sessions, or fundraising planning sessions through an in-depth exploration and discussion among your organization’s leadership staff or planning committee.

But before those groups can go to work at choosing a few pillars around which their plans will focus, they need to capture input from your organization’s many diverse stakeholders, from its program participants, to its donors, volunteers and board members. This is the central tenet of our Shared Power Strategy™ philosophy, which you can learn more about here.

Once you’ve captured stakeholder input, you can begin the process of choosing pillars by brainstorming a list of all the big, strategic questions your organization or team needs to answer over the next 1-3 years. Any question is fair game, and many organizations brainstorm literally dozens or even hundreds of questions as an early step in choosing their pillars. Then, begin to organize those big questions into categories or themes, grouping related questions together. This may take some time, but ultimately, you’ll likely see 5-10 themes or categories emerge.

It may be immediately apparent which 3-4 of these categories need to become the pillars, or big picture themes around which the plan you’re developing will need to focus. If not, you can use a tool like the Eisenhower Matrix to help you narrow your categories down into 3-4 potential pillars. It’s also often helpful to get feedback from your stakeholders as you begin to narrow down to a limited set of pillars. Ultimately, you want your pillars to align with their priorities and the things they need most from your organization.

Eisenhower Matrix brainstorm ranging from lighter lift to heavier lift, and low impact to high impact

Then, you’ll want to refine your understanding of those pillars by giving them names that describe what they encompass, and consolidating the questions that you brainstormed to generate them, so that you can refer back to those questions later.

Remember, you’re aiming for 3-5 pillars for your strategic plan, marketing plan or fundraising plan. They should be broad, inspiring, and quickly articulate the biggest, most important things your plan is going to focus on accomplishing.

Part 3: How to Set OKRs

With your pillars in place, it’s time to move into setting objectives. 

Begin by conducting a brainstorm with your planning committee to come up with a list of all the things you feel your organization needs to accomplish in the next 1-3 years under each pillar. You’ll likely want to refer back to the big, strategic question you came up with during pillar development to inform this brainstorm. Then, narrow your list down to the 3-4 absolute most important things you need to accomplish under each pillar, which will become your objectives.

This may require a fair amount of discussion or debate, and once you have the “spirit” of your objectives straight, you might need to spend some time on wordsmithing and construction to make them work well as objectives. As you work to narrow down your objectives, keep in mind that effective objectives are:

  • Ambitious: objectives should represent a significant change or leap forward, not something that would be likely to happen through continuing “business as usual.”
  • Memorable: objectives should be concise and easy to remember, recite and reflect on while you’re going about your day-to-day work.
  • Mission-aligned: objectives should play a clear role in advancing your organization’s mission.

Next come key results. 

Key results are where the real power of this system lies, because they break your objectives down into actionable, measurable milestones or measures that when hit, virtually ensure positive forward momentum.

To set your key results, work through each objective, one-by-one, with your planning committee. Ask yourselves: “what are the 2-5 things we’ll need to produce or accomplish in order to make this objective true?” Then, answer that question by crafting a short list of key results. 

The most effective key results sets include a mix of output-oriented key results and outcome-oriented key results. What’s the difference?

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

From the first objective in the example above, the following is an output-oriented key result: 

  • Conduct a feasibility study to identify the 10 best communities for expansion 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. 

Again from the first objective in the example above, the following are outcome-oriented key results:

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

Effective OKR sets include a healthy mix of output and outcome-oriented key results, typically leaning in favor of more outcome-oriented key results than output-oriented ones. 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. 

Again, we recommend asking your stakeholders for feedback as you go through the process of setting OKRs. While they may not be interested in reviewing the granular specifics of each key result, it can be helpful to find out if they feel that, overall, your set of OKRs is going to ensure your organization is focused on what matters most to them.

Part 4: How to Manage OKRs

Determine OKR Ownership

After your team feels that you have a solid set of OKRs in place, it’s time to assign ownership for each pillar, objective and key result, which you’ll also include in your strategic plan, marketing plan or fundraising plan document. In some cases, one person on your team will own an entire pillar and all of the objectives and key results under it. In other cases, you may have one person who owns and oversees a pillar, and a mix of other staff members who own various objectives and key results beneath it. The owner of each item should simply be the person who is most logical to hold responsible for seeing each pillar, objective or key result through the finish line.

Once you’ve solidified your OKRs and their owners, they should be documented in your strategic plan, marketing plan or fundraising plan.

Set up an OKR Dashboard

Then, it’s time to put your OKRs on a dashboard and start measuring them and meeting about them.

In an upcoming post, we’ll share a template OKR dashboard you can use for your organization. The OKR dashboard will challenge you to define the following for each KR:

  • Metric: is the KR numerical (ex: grow program participants from 250 to 500) or percentage-based (ex: launch a new program, with potential values of 0% complete to 100% complete)?
  • Measurement frequency: are we aiming to achieve this KR by the end of the quarter or the end of a year?
  • Target value: what’s the amount we’re trying to hit related to this KR measure? (ex: 500 program participants or 100% completion)
  • Current value: Where are we at currently in relation to the measure?
  • Owner: who owns this pillar, objective or key result?
  • Progress: how far along are we toward completing the KR? (0-100%, calculates automatically based on target value and current value)
  • Confidence level: how confident are we that we’ll complete this KR based on our progress to date and what we know now? Options include:
    • Completed: we’ve achieved the KR
    • On track: we’re likely to complete the KR
    • Off track: we’re unlikely to complete the KR unless something major changes
    • At risk: we’re not totally off track yet, but will be soon
    • Not started: we haven’t started working on this OKR yet because it’s slated for a later time in our plan

The OKR tracker also displays how far along you are currently in both the current quarter and the current year, so that you can more easily assess if quarterly and annual OKRs are on or off track. For example, at the time of this writing, we’re about 75% of the way through the first quarter. Any quarterly KRs set to be accomplished in this quarter that are behind 75% completion are likely off track. 

In the dashboard, you can also see the average progress percentage across all of your OKRs or across OKRs in a specific pillar.

As you work through completing the dashboard, it may cause you to further refine some of your OKRs in order to make them more measurable, meaningful or clear.

Develop Quarterly Activity Plans

In order to make your OKRs as actionable as possible, we recommend that each pillar owner host a quarterly activity planning session with all those responsible for that pillar’s associated objectives and key results. Together, these owners can map out the specific action steps that need to be taken over the next quarter to move the pillar and associated OKRs forward, and break them down into more granular deadlines and deliverables.

We’re also including an example of a quarterly activity plan in the dashboard we’re releasing in the next few weeks. It has less detail than the OKR tracker, but also includes a progress measure (0-100%, graded based on the assessment of the owner), and a confidence level.

Measure and Meet

Finally, it’s time to start measuring your OKRs and to put a cadence of meetings on the calendar that ensure your strategic plan (or marketing or fundraising plan) and its associated pillars and OKRs get carried out. We recommend the following:

  • Each quarter: Each pillar owner hosts a meeting with those who own OKRs underneath their pillar to develop an activity plan for the upcoming quarter. 
  • Each month: Each Pillar owner hosts a meeting with those who own OKRs underneath their pillar to discuss progress toward the activities in the activity plan. They discuss:
    • Progress
    • Confidence level
    • For activities that are “at-risk” or “off track,” what needs to happen to get back “on track?”
    • What’s happened on each activity since the last meeting and what will happen before the next meeting?
  • Each week: All pillar owners update the OKR tracker and meet with the other pillar owners and/or leadership team to discuss:
    • Progress
    • Confidence level
    • For OKRs that are “at-risk” or “off track,” what needs to happen to get back “on track?”
    • What’s happened on each OKR since the last meeting and what will happen before the next meeting?

What about annual planning?

We also suggest holding annual planning meetings for the duration of your plan (most nonprofit strategic plans are 3 years in duration). These should include everyone who was originally involved in developing the plan. In these meetings, you should do a more detailed analysis of your progress to date across OKRs, and also critically assess whether any pillars, objectives or key results need to be modified, added, or thrown out. While the decision to completely throw out an OKR shouldn’t be taken lightly, there are cases where it may be necessary due to changing conditions or factors out of your organization’s control (prime example: COVID).

On the flip side, adding an entire new pillar or set of OKRs (without simultaneously removing one) should only be done when you’re making faster than expected progress on your existing OKRs. That said, the most effective organizations are those that manage to stay focused and agile, sticking to their plans whenever possible, and reorienting when circumstances warrant it. Pillars and OKRs are the perfect tool for achieving focus and agility. 

Are you ready to start putting Pillars and OKRs into action for your nonprofit? 

Learn more at prosper-strategies.com

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