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Strategic Planning & Goal Setting Terminology: A Guide for Clarity and Consistency . . .

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

Naming Conventions for Planning and Change

by Tom Iselin

“America’s Best Board Retreat Facilitator”


Whether you're going through a strategic planning session, visioning session, board retreat, or you're just setting goals for staff, it’s not uncommon for people to use the term “objective” when they are referring to a “goal” and vice versa. Even some of the best strategic planning facilitators often confuse these terms.

This morning, I was reviewing a strategic plan from a new client and noticed they were misusing terms. I sent them a terminology guide I wrote a few years ago to help them improve clarity. There are other terms not included here, but it covers the basics and provides an easy-to-understand example. Keep it on on file and I hope you find it useful when the time is right.

Competitive Advantage

What you are best at doing? Or, what should you be best at doing? How do you differentiate yourself within your sector, geographic region, or the service you provide? Why should donors give you money instead of the nonprofit down the block?

Strategic Priorities (Organization-Wide Strategies)

These are overarching methods you must employ, or paths you must take, to realize your vision. They are high-level and form the “mindset” and “thrust” of what your organization must accomplish (strategically) to achieve its vision.

Think of them as the primary routes you must take, or structures you must have in place, during your journey to achieve your vision. They should be process-oriented, not short-term task oriented. They should be clear, focused, limited in number, easy to communicate, and measurable.

It can be useful to give these overarching priorities “theme names” to help people remember them in a general sense (e.g., “Build,” “Accelerate”, “Rhythm,” etc.


A goal is a broad end result that you want to achieve and are committed to achieving. Goals are long-term aims. Goals should be in line with your mission. Achieving a goal may require you to accomplish a number of objectives.

Goals have observable and measurable end results having one or more objectives to be achieved within a more or less fixed timeframe. You will want to prioritize goals by importance and allocate the necessary resources required to accomplish each goal.


An objective is a specific measurable result (outcome) expected within a particular time period, consistent with a goal, and in an effort to achieve a goal. Objectives are clear "mileposts" (obtainables) along a strategically chosen path to achieve a goal. They can organization-wide, used at the functional level, team level, or personal level.

Objectives almost always have a time period associated with them. You’ll want to prioritize your objectives by importance and allocate the necessary resources required to accomplish each objective.


A strategy is the method(s) you must employ, or path(s) you must take, to realize an objective. Strategies should reflect reasoned choices among alternative paths. Think of a strategy as a “process” to accomplish an objective.

Tactics/Action Items/Action Steps

Tactics are a sequence of steps that must be taken, or activities (actions) that must be performed well, for a strategy to succeed. A tactic has five major elements:

  1. Definition: What will be done and by whom?

  2. Time horizon: When will it be done?

  3. Priority: Rank the tactic against other tactics in terms of need, importance, impact, and available resources.

  4. Oversight: Who or what system will ensure the tactic gets completed? (See Task Management Grid (pg. 20 for a tool you can use to monitor progress.)

  5. Resource allocation: What specific resources (people, funds, facility, equipment, etc.) will be required to complete the tactic?


Policies guide CEO’s, managers, and board members in decision-making and provide a basis for interpreting strategy that is stated in a general way.


A rule is a do or don’t statement put in place to promote safety and uniform treatment of employees.


Evaluation is the tools, techniques, or milestones used to measure whether or not you’ve achieved your goals and accomplished your objectives. This may include completed milestones, funds raised, tasks accomplished, etc.


A formalized and standardized way of accomplishing repetitive or routine jobs or tasks.


Procedures are step-by-step directions that explain how activities or tasks should be carried out to enforce a policy to attain predetermined objectives.


A statement, usually in a spreadsheet format, of expected results expressed in numerical format.


Functional Area


Specific Program

After school ski instruction for children with disabilities.

Strategic Priority

Build the capacity of our instructors through learning.

Theme: “Train the Trainer”


Improve the level of competency of our ski instructors to teach snow skiing to children with disabilities.


By March 30, have 80 percent of our 250 ski instructors complete 20 hours of adaptive ski clinics.


Double the number of adaptive ski clinics offered and hold clinics at more convenient times.

Tactic 1: (Use Task Management Grid).

  1. Defined: Sara will develop and promote 20 training sessions to resort instructors this season.

  2. Timeframe: Offer three-hour clinics every Wednesday morning from 10:00am – 1:00pm, starting December 15.

  3. Priority: Number one priority for adaptive ski program.

  4. Accountability: Tim will supervise. Sara will report on progress on the 1st and 15th of each month.

  5. Resources needed: Sara will require four Level-2 certified adaptive ski instructors and one Level-4 adaptive ski supervisor.


All managers must shadow instructors who’ve completed their training for a minimum of three lessons.


No instructor may smoke on the mountain while on the clock.


On April 1, calculate how many hours of instruction each instructor logged for the season, and how many instructors received Level 1, 2, and 3 certifications for adaptive skiing.

Effective Goal Setting

Goals are the basis of an effective process. There are two key elements to consider when developing goals. First, are goals written clearly and objectively? Second, are they directly contributing to the achievement of business strategy (mission, vision)?

Clearly communicating strategic business objectives is the first step to creating alignment. Providing visibility to goals set by departments across the organization furthers alignment.

Use First Things First "SMARTAR" goals framework tool to set your goals:

S - Specific

M - Measurable

A - Achievable/Attainable/Ambitious

R - Results oriented/Realistic/Relevant/Resonant

T - Time bound

A – Alignment to objectives, mission, vision, culture

R – Reward

Goals must be achievable and realistic. An unachievable goal is just that. Action plans to support each goal can include documentation of the steps necessary to achieve a goal. By keeping goals relevant, an organization reinforces the importance of linking to strategic objectives and communicating why the goal is important.

If board and staff members understand that their actions support an area of the business then it is easier to understand the impact when deadlines are not met.

Using the SMARTAR framework provides clarity up front to board, staff, and committee members who will be evaluated against these goals.

Tom Iselin

“America’s Best Board Retreat and Strategic Planning Facilitator”

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Tom's Books and Channels

Tom Iselin has built four sector-leading nonprofits and four foundations. He’s written six books, sits on six boards, and hosts a video blog and podcast. Each year, Tom speaks to more than 5,000 nonprofit leaders at conferences across the country. He is considered America's best board retreat and strategic planning facilitator and is a leading authority on high-performance nonprofits, and his impact on the industry has been featured on CNN, Nightline, and in Newsweek.

Tom is the president of First Things First, a business specializing in board development retreats, strategic planning, fundraising, executive coaching, and speaking. To relax, he loves mountain biking, hiking, skiing, tennis, and baking.

If you’re in the hunt for the best board retreat/board development facilitation, or the best strategic planning facilitation, it would be a privilege to learn more about your organization and the aspirations you hope to achieve as you work to propel your noble mission. Jot me an email to set up a meet-and-greet call.

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