Organizing tips: Setting strategic goals

Becka DeSmidt (pictured on the left) is Community Manager of the Open School team at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI). In this role, she coaches health care professionals, students, and trainees who are working to improve the quality and safety of the care they provide to their patients and improve health in their communities.

We asked Becka for tips on setting strategic goals within a community organizing campaign. Below is her thoughtful answer.

How good, by when?

At IHI, when we coach health care professionals and students on setting goals in quality improvement, we often use the shorthand, “how good, by when?” This means setting a specific measurable goal with a set due date, rather than a broad goal for the future.

For example, you could aim to increase the number of individuals in a specific zip code with an assigned primary care physician by 20% by 2018, instead of just saying you want to improve access to primary care. Having a specific goal helps others understand how they can contribute to that goal and will motivate them to join in your efforts.

The same principle applies in community organizing. To be successful in community organizing, our work must be rooted in our values and passions; it must achieve a specific, measurable outcome; and it must involve mobilizing others to achieve that outcome. When we are asking others to commit their time, energy, and resources to our work, we have to articulate a clear and compelling vision for the change we are striving for.

How high is too high?

It can be hard to know how bold and ambitious to be with our aims. Setting an aim unrealistically high can be demotivating if the team is unable to accomplish the goal; on the flip side, setting an aim too low can be uninspiring.

Luckily, in community organizing, by definition, we are not alone. In an Open School course we teach on community organizing, we use a definition of leadership from Marshall Ganz, a lifelong community organizer and Harvard Kennedy School professor: “Leadership in organizing is accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty.” In the face of uncertainty, we turn to our people and empower them to exercise agency to solve the challenges they face. When you’re setting an aim, turn to the members of your team and solicit their opinions. By engaging your team in co-creating your aim, you deepen their engagement and commitment to your work.

An example that illustrates the importance of setting an aim in collaboration with your team is a project that a University of South Carolina medical student launched in 2014 to educate new caregivers about the importance of “tummy time” for their infants – a practice that strengthens babies’ neck muscles and can prevent conditions like torticollis and plagiocephaly. At first, Melissa Gilbreth set an aim to engage 100 new parents in her project. But as she engaged her classmates, she expanded her team to 49 student volunteers, and their vision grew as well. In just a year and a half, the team reached over 2,000 parents.

If Melissa had initially set her sights on such a daunting number, her team might have felt overwhelmed and intimidated. But by quickly adapting and distributing leadership, Melissa and her team set increasingly higher aims together and achieved far more than they might have expected at the outset.