Goals: The Definition of Success

boat on calm water

A primer on the setting of goals

A few years ago, I was involved with the organization of a giant event. It was a one-day outdoor festival and concert in a big city. It was a lot of work and a lot of money on the part of the organizers and, well, to make a long story short, it rained all day. Not just drizzle; this was a downpour of biblical proportions.

At the postmortem, all of the crestfallen organizers offered reasons why it wasn’t such a bad day: “Um, the people who came had a really good time.” “The music was really good.” “We really got to spend time with our partners,” and so on. Eventually someone had the courage to go back to the original goals for the event: we wanted to increase our reach and diversify our audience by attracting substantial numbers (5000, I think) of younger urban Canadians. That was the goal—that was the only definition of success that mattered. And by that criterion, the event was a giant failure. Live and learn.

My point isn’t that you shouldn’t hold giant outdoor events in June in a city where it rains a lot (though you’re welcome to learn from that particular fail.) My point is that as a planner, I see people setting vague goals for big projects—or no real goals at all—and then struggling to assess whether or not they’ve achieved anything.

The first pitfall of goal-setting: confusing actions with goals.

“Our goal is to produce three new brochures in 2017.” “Our goal is to pilot a new style of tour over the summer.” “Our goal is to build a new nature centre before 2020.”

Those aren’t goals, I’m afraid. They’re actions or tactics, and you need to articulate what you’re trying to achieve with them.

Goals answer the question, “Why are we doing this? To what end? What meaningful change do we want to see in our resource, our organization, our publics?”

Goals flow from your mission statement and vision (you do have a solid, functional mission statement, don’t you? I can help you if you don’t. More about that in a future article.)

Once again: you want to see measurable change in your resource—the land base, park, historic site you exist to protect and present— or your organization, or your publics, or your community.

“Increase fiscal sustainability by increasing attendance in the shoulder season.”

“Increase connection with and retention of our messages among younger audiences.”

“Reduce litter and damage along busy trails”

Those are goals. Those answer the question, “Why are we doing this? To what end?”

But they’re just the start.

Indicators of success

Early in the planning process, you may not be able to attach dollars and numbers to your goals, so I find it useful to at least name the indicator. This is a term I borrow from ecologists: “Goal: increased stream health. Indicator: water clarity and species diversity”. Eventually, the ecologist will have to define how clear the water will be, how many and what species, and so on. But for now, they’re just identifying the indicators.

So for us, the goal of increased fiscal sustainability through increased attendance in the shoulder season might have the following indicators of success: gate revenue, visitation stats, and/or retail revenue.

“Increase connection with and retention of our messages among younger audiences.” Indicator: answers to qualitative surveys. Unsolicited comments on cards and online.

Eventually, you’ll articulate the numbers and benchmarks as concrete figures, but you won’t be able to do that without further planning and research. So start with indicators.

OK, now it’s time for the actions

How are you going to get your increased shoulder season attendance? Perhaps something like:

  • a springtime special event, tailored to a high-potential target audience
  • a dynamic new daily program, exclusively available in shoulder season
  • a new partnership with a tour provider who has a strong clientele in shoulder season (in my part of the world that’s European bus tourists)

But actions aren’t enough

This is the second big pitfall of goal-setting, and it’s a particularly bad one with government organizations. “We held thirty events! Success!” “We distributed 40 000 brochures! Yay us!” “We sent twenty kids to the North for a week at an astronomical cost to the taxpayer! Whee!”[ref] Don’t get me started on that one. [/ref]

Um, nope. You need to do better than that. You need to figure out how you’re going to measure your impact. Doing the action isn’t enough; you don’t do the action for its own sake, remember? So what are you trying to accomplish?

Defining outcomes

OK now it’s time to define your concrete outcomes—also known as setting your objectives.

A change in your resource:

“Litter on Trail X will be reduced by 40% year over year as measured by a monthly cleanup by staff.”

A change in your publics:

“Unsolicited references to messages and themes by visitors aged 18-35 will increase 30%”.

“70% of visitors in that age group will correctly identify key messages in an intercept survey.”

“Percent of visitors in that age group who agree that they identify with and appreciate key messages will increase 40%”[ref]Note that I’m not suggesting that message retention is the most important thing for that age group; I’m just suggesting that if you think it is, you need to articulate that as a goal and measure it. [/ref]

A change in your organization:

“Shoulder season revenue increases by 12%”

A change in your community:[ref]Depending on your mission and organizational structure, goals related to your community might already be accounted for within your goals related to your organization or your publics. [/ref]

“Local hotels will measure a 15% increase in stays associated with our attraction, as measured by hotel guest surveys.”

The elegant simplicity of the logic model

Taking this all one step further, you might want to lay this all out as a logic model. There are a few different approaches to these; here’a simple one:

Goal –> Investment –> Action –> Output –> Outcome/Impact

Goal: Increase shoulder season visitation

Solution 1: New Shoulder-season Program

Investment: $5000 and 150 person-hours

Action : Develop, pilot, deliver and evaluate a new daily visitor experience for shoulder-season visitors only

Output: Event script, props, visuals, training, promotions and evaluation material. Program delivered 3x week for 10 weeks in the first year.

Outcome: Product will be 75% subscribed through pilot season. 40% of attendees will be first-time visitors.

(And if you’re charging fees for the program, you’ll want to calculate your costs and prices using my handy VE Product Costing Tool.)

I realize that you may not be a planner by temperament. Maybe you’d rather stick pins in your eyes than put yourself through exercises like this. But I really believe that, of the 150 hours you might spend developing a new product, these will be the most important two hours of the whole process. With tight planning, you can easily promote your creative work to your supervisors, and get that green light you need—and when all’s said and done you can easily demonstrate that your idea was a winner.

There is no success without goals. Remember: you’re trying to define meaningful, measurable change in your resource, in your publics, in your community or in your organization.

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  1. Caroline Russell-King

    I have been working with vision statements, missions and mandates as an artist. Makes a huge difference. (I love that you said “person hours”)

    • Don Enright

      Thanks Caroline- I really like the idea of the personal mission and vision statements, for interpreters and other artists too. When I train new interpreters we draw a Venn diagram with three circles: the interpreter’s mission, the organization’s mission, and the visitor’s mission. The idea is to find the sweet spot where all three converge.

  2. Melanie Knight

    Great article, Don. Just passed this to my board. 🙂

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