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How to avoid the most common mistake when you set goals – wisdom from a Paralympic Champion

In the year 2000 my charity employer sent me on a course. Brand new to fundraising, many of the ideas were extremely useful. And I was impressed by a neat system which our tutor gave us to make sure the fundraising goals we set were effective.


You may have been told the same thing. Over the years I’ve been told frequently that my goals will be useless unless they’re SMART. If you haven’t heard of this tool, the idea is that goals should be Specific; Measurable; Achievable; Realistic (or Relevant) and Time-bound.


Advice on goal-setting from a Paralympic athlete


While she was a student, Karen Darke was climbing sea cliffs near Aberdeen in Scotland and had a dreadful accident. She has been paralysed from the chest down ever since.


Karen tells her fascinating story in her autobiography If You Fall. I was so stirred by Karen’s ability to overcome immense difficulty that I decided to ask her for help. I explained that the extraordinary feats she describes in the book – climbing giant mountains like El Capitan; hand-cycling the length of Japan; winning two Paralympic silver medals – would seem virtually impossible to most people, and yet Karen has clearly made a habit of defying the odds.


Since everyone who works for a charity needs to sometimes overcome difficulty (David and Goliath ideas for cunning, heroic fundraisers) I asked Karen how repeatedly achieves at such a high level.


In particular I wanted to know if this serial high achiever sets herself goals which are Achievable or Realistic.


What do you think she said?


‘No, never. How it usually happens is I’m chatting with a friend and one of us says ‘Wouldn’t It Be Amazing if…’ And it’s happened so often that my friends and I call these challenges WIBAs’.


‘So you wouldn’t call the goal to enter the Paralympics or do yr first marathon Achievable and Realistic?’


‘No, far from it.’ She laughed. ‘But Rob, I’m honestly not that special. When we get excited about climbing a new mountain or whatever, I’m usually as daunted by how impossible it seems as anyone else would be. But if there is a thing I do, which does seem less usual, it’s to then write down my WIBA and so I feel excited by it, and yet be able to live with the fact it seems impossible.


‘And then each and every day I ask myself what could I do today to make the impossible WIBA a bit more possible.’


A light bulb went on for me. ‘So each of those things you do, are they Specific? Could you Measure whether you do them that day, are they Time-bound, and Relevant…and Karen, most of all, are you saying those daily things you do are ACHIEVABLE or REALISTIC?


‘I’ve never thought of it that way, but they are always small, daily steps, so yes, absolutely’.


So SMART goals can help


Phew. So goals which are SMART can be a valuable tool to help us make progress in our fundraising. But only for when we break down our Big Hairy Goal into manageable chunks. The danger comes when we use them for the wrong purpose, to avoid feeling uncomfortable.


I recently spoke to a highly successful business coach, David Hyner who has been studying success habits for over a decade by interviewing more than 240 world class achievers in sport, business, the arts etc.


Through these interviews he has found that elite performers never set goals which at the time seem Achievable, because to do so would be deriving future focus only from what has been achieved in the past.


When David told one of his interviewees that SMART is the most common goal setting system taught in businesses, charities (and indeed schools), one of them replied, ‘What, you mean we’re setting them up to aim for mediocrity?’


David asks, ‘Can you think of a single noteworthy, life-enhancing achievement in the history of the human-race, that would have happened if the key player had aimed for something (cue your wimpiest voice) Realistic?’


I can’t think of one.


Last week I flew to IFC in the Netherlands, where I learned extraordinary, uplifting fundraising ideas that will help my clients and I to raise more money to alleviate suffering. But I was only able to step inside a piece of metal and fly through the air to get there because the Wright Brothers and others since set themselves goals which were a long way from Realistic.


So now I dare you to take five minutes to do this exercise. There is nothing to lose and masses to gain. Ask yourself,‘what achievement in my job would feel truly AMAZING if I could make it happen?’: eg DOUBLE the number of marathon participants I recruit next year; or TREBLE the number of six figure major gifts I secure; or create a team culture so outstanding that income will soar and the greatest fundraising talent will flock to our door…


Karen’s three steps to richer results and a richer life


1. Find the WIBA that excites you
2. Write it down today and decide to live with its (seeming) impossibility
3. Each day, every day, play the game of finding and doing something to make it more possible.

On March 26, 2014 / Fundraising Skills, Major Gifts, Mentoring

Client Testimonials 
‘What I love about the Major Gifts Mastery Programme is it’s so practical. I’ve seen loads of monetary value come from what we learned, including a gift of £200,000 from a trust that came about because of the learnings in the course. If you want to raise more money, I’d urge you to do the Programme.’

Paul McKenzie, Head of Major Giving and Corporate Partnerships, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home

Rob's outstanding pitch training helped me secure a partnership worth £380,000 over three years. One of the crucial things he helped me do was to better understand the psychology of who I needed to convince, and use this to craft my influencing strategies, structure and stories to help them say YES. If you need to win more partnerships, I would absolutely recommend you get on Rob's training.

Karen Arkell, Senior Officer, Corporate Partnerships, Teach First

'We recently had a pitch we just had to win. I'm absolutely clear that what we learned from Rob helped us get the deal, which is a partnership that's going to raise £1 million. Rob is better at helping you influence your donor to get the gift than anyone I've met.

Ben Swart, Head of Corporate New Business, NSPCC

Rob's exceptional training has taken our programme to the next level. One example was a colleague re-connecting with a lapsed donor on the phone, resulting in a £100k+ gift; his first in four years. I would absolutely recommend Rob's training programme as an invaluable investment for any fundraising team.

Victoria Stephenson, Head of Major Donors, UNICEF UK

Following the course, Major Gift Fundraisers at the NSPCC increased gift income by 29%

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We're currently involved in our largest ever Campaign, with a target of £500 million, so we've invested in the best training available. Rob's courses have been an essential part of our annual King's Knowledge learning programme for the last five years, because he continues to help us get outstanding results.

Gemma Peters, Director of Development, King's College London

I’ve found the Corporate Partnerships Mastery Programme hugely helpful already. It’s helped me in so many ways, but as an example, I applied one of Rob’s pitching techniques and it completely wowed the panel, and has resulted in a partnership worth over £100,000.

Kieran Cornwall, Senior Strategic Partnerships Manager, Cystic Fibrosis Trust

I was on the pitch team to win a partnership worth £1,000,000. I was determined to pitch to the best of my ability. Rob helped me present with confidence, persuasiveness and enthusiasm, enabling me to connect with the pitch panel – and we won the partnership.

Kirsty Lawson, Corporate Account Team Manager, (Head of) at Alzheimer’s Society

Rob showed my corporate fundraising team lots of excellent new business strategies. The techniques made a made a MASSIVE difference to our financial results, including helping to win a partnership worth £2 million

Jess Coombs, Head of Corporate Fundraising, Teenage Cancer Trust and formerly at Action for Children