Objective setting: sometimes being SMART isn’t enough

Generally speaking, SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timebound (although there are some variations on this). It’s a great checklist for objective-setting and just meeting that criteria is harder than you might expect. But for nonprofits and those with limited resources for marketing, being SMART with objectives isn’t enough.

I’m currently working with the lovely people at IDS who run the Eldis Climate Change Resource Guide. We’re developing their new marketing plan through a series of  workshops which gives us all time to do some reflecting and research between sessions. In preparing for the workshop on Objectives, I pulled out my usual SMART checklist and realised we needed to put the draft objectives through two more filters: are they Ethical, and are they Rewarding?

First, a quick recap on SMART and how it might apply to nonprofits. Why do you need to spend time getting your objectives Specific? Often, you might not be the person who implements the plan or reviews it at the end so now’s the time to be clear about what success will be judged on and to double-check your reasoning. Are you being precise about the Who and the What?

“What gets measured gets done” is a familiar expression and a hard lesson to learn (interesting debate on the origin and meaning of the saying here). If your objectives are Measurable, then it will be your brief to the Monitoring and Evaluation section of your marketing plan, and here’s your chance to discover in advance if this is something you can actually monitor going forward. Can you produce a baseline for it? This is a good test for how measurable it is and a tool for helping you decide how high to set your aims (what does a 10% increase really look like?).

If you’ve done your SWOT analysis then you’ll know if your objectives are Achievable i.e. something you can do, bearing in mind your skills, knowledge and resources, but remember to look at them as a set, rather than individually. If it’s just you and a small budget getting things done, how big a task are your setting yourself if you have to achieve all of them?

I’m seeing more and more development organisations using a Theory of Change to articulate their assumptions about their ambitions and activities. Whatever strategy tool you use, if your objectives are Relevant, then you should be able to see where they fit into your overall vision and understanding of how change happens.

An easy one to overlook, are your objectives Timebound? Have you put in a deadline and is it the right one? Think about your reporting and funding cycles; maybe a month earlier will make a difference.

Being SMARTER: 1) Are our objectives Ethical?

Of course you’re all good people but it’s worth asking: is achieving these objectives in the best interest of our stakeholders? Are we being responsible with our resources? Like many nonprofits, Eldis is using public funds to make a difference in the world, in this case, by increasing global free access to knowledge on climate change and development. Adding Ethical, makes us consider whether the objectives are going to make the best possible use of that money, especially for those needing to respond to the Value For Money agenda.

Being SMARTER. 2) Are our objectives Rewarding?

Brilliant objectives are good, achieving them is great. Have you got a set of objectives that prompt enthusiasm, or dread? Some things just need to get done, and the motivation might come from the way they are pursued (the choice of tactics) but ask yourself, do the objectives inspire you and anyone else who will be working on them? If you thrive on a challenge and want to learn as you go, check if you haven’t made any of them too Achievable. For year-long objectives, are people going to be able to see results before the end date? If not, maybe set some short-term sub-objectives so you can celebrate success along the way.

I’ve found the SMARTER checklist helpful for agreeing objectives, and think it could be an interesting framework for reviewing what’s been learnt about marketing and objective-setting. What other filters do you use for your objectives?

2 thoughts on “Objective setting: sometimes being SMART isn’t enough

    • Thanks, Anna. I think in a lot of cases, objectives could do with being a bit more SPICED up. It would be great for organisations that want to make their planning more public or who have some form of social impact as one of their goals to be more aware of communication issues, and involving stakeholders in setting their objectives.

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