How to Set Professional Goals Like a Champ

by Kathleen M. O'Donnell and Tammy A. Barnes, YNPNdc Volunteers -

Setting goals is a required part of many nonprofit jobs, but the act of goal planning can go beyond just checking some boxes. Professional fulfillment comes in many forms, and thinking carefully about your goals will help you figure out how to get the most out of your career and where you may want to go next.  In addition to helping you move forward, goals also help contextualize and measure your progress along the way. Don’t forget to take time to reflect regularly on where you started; your original goals become mile markers of your career journey. Here are some things to consider while crafting your goals for the new year.

Ask for guidance

Your supervisor or other colleagues may have some strong ideas for you on areas of growth. Trust their input. Chances are good they’ve observed things that you’re unable to see yourself. For extra guidance, consider going outside your office. Cultivate a relationship with trusted industry colleague or peer.  Do you think their advice will fit your needs?  Would they be available to serve as your goal-setting sounding board or work alongside you as a goal accountability partner? Knowing where to find someone is half the battle. Don’t forget to come to YNPNdc’s monthly Happy Hours, networking events for you to meet other professionals seeking new partners in crime.

Challenge yourself and be open to challenges

“Reach” goals are important. Sure, this sounds like shoot-for-the-moon-and-you’ll-land among-the-stars kind of mantra, but you will never know your limits unless you challenge your own boundaries.  Ask yourself:  what’s just beyond your reach?  And then ask: how do I get there? But remember, not completing a professional goal is okay. Most goals are set with an expectation that “this” or “that” will fall into place, and while we do our best to create goals with a predictable future in mind, sometimes they just don’t work out.  This isn’t failure.  Instead, view it as a chance to evaluate, build inner resilience, and open yourself up to new challenges.

Demonstrate what sets you apart

What skill sets do you have that others don’t? How can you use them to help your whole team?  Include sharing and implementing your unique strengths in your goals. If your team struggles with processes, but you are a highly organized person, offer to help improve workflow. Or perhaps you’re an exemplary communicator and you often notice things slipping through the cracks. Suggest implementing a communication protocol for when a problem arises at work.

Be a hand-raiser, but find the balance between your core duties and additional responsibilities.  This will help you guard against burnout and also let your coworkers have a chance to rise to challenges. Willingness to pitch in where needed demonstrates your commitment to bettering your organization, which will likely pay off in dividends.

Prioritize professional development opportunities

Many of us would love to go through the year with a big promotion in sight, but that can be unrealistic or completely out of our control.  What if you shifted your thinking away from achieving big wins like a promotion to incremental progress? Participate in a webinar that digs into a professional area you’re looking to sink your teeth into. Or take yourself out on a professional development date and attend a lecture at a think tank, college, or museum. These may seem like baby steps, but meeting small professional development goals can set you on a path toward achieving a larger goal. Plus, it keeps you fresh and focused rather than stagnant or stuck contemplating what you wish you had.

Look inside and outside your organization for professional development. Do you have a colleague with a skill set you wish to develop? Ask him/her out to lunch to discuss. YNPNdc can also help. Attend one of our monthly Inner Circles events, professional development discussions and workshops designed with you in mind.  Keep an eye on our e-newsletters for other low-cost opportunities and ways to volunteer.

Remember seeking professional opportunities demonstrates your commitment, not only to your organization but to the industry at large. Hiring managers love self-starters and volunteer contributors, so think of it as an investment in your future job prospects as well as a way to grow in your current role.

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  • Dee Dee
    commented 2018-04-04 14:08:16 -0400
    I love the idea of a “professional development date”. If you’re a nonprofit professional who also happens to love learning, then this is a fun way to move yourself forward! I typically find in-person events on Eventbrite, through groups like YNPN, or online if there are any webinars relevant to my industry.

    Another option that tends to be pricier, but that I really love, is conferences. It can be hard to find the right one sometimes, so I’ve put together a few tips on how to go about it (and how to make the case to your boss). If your organization can swing it, they make a great professional development option: