Back to the future for BHAGs

Published by Elsbeth Takkenberg on

In search of the perfect case for support and tagline for fundraising campaigns, I spoke to someone with a great deal of marketing expertise. He introduced me to the term ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’, or ‘BHAG’ for insiders.

Big hairy whát?
According to Wikipedia, a Big Hairy Audacious Goal is: ’a strategic business statement which is created to focus an organization on a single medium-long term organization-wide goal which is audacious, likely to be externally questionable, but not internally regarded as impossible.    BHAGA BHAG encourages companies to define visionary goals that are more strategic and emotionally compelling’. It should be Big, Cuddly, the Impact on society should be enormously and last but not least, it should be feasible. Good examples of inspiring BHAGs are: ‘To become the pulse of the planet’ (Twitter), ‘Connecting 5 billion people by 2015’ (Nokia Siemens), and my favorite: ‘A computer on every desk in every home’ (Microsoft).
To the clients, donors, prospects, the BHAG is clear, understandable, recognizable and inspiring. It engages them to help achieve the goal. To the organization, the BHAG gives strategic direction: where do you want to be at the end of your journey? Not in Q1, not this year, but in the future? It can change your strategic thinking, your fundraising activities.

If you ask me, BHAGs are above the mission and vision statement of organizations. To inspire donors, you should be able to paint a future where the problem you want to solve no longer exists. People want to be a part of the process of solving this problem. The ambition is clear, and people mobilize to reach this hairy goal. Your BHAG could or should be your organizations brand.

Not exactly knowing my own charities BHAG, I was wondering: do other non profit organizations use BHAG’s deliberately? In search for an answer to this question, I looked at the homepage of several non profits. See if you know which organization is linked to these goals.
‘Promoting child rights to end child poverty’
‘Everybody deserves a tomorrow’.
‘Reduce animal suffering caused by people’
‘To be dedicated to protect the human rights of people around the world’
‘To help disaster victims’
‘Stop Aids now’
’In 2025, 95 % cure-rate’

Inspire more, explain less
I noticed that some organizations explained a lot on their homepage, and a clear and inspiring BHAG was lacking. In ‘De marketing van idealen’, I read that the brand of an organization is not about explaining precisely and completely what kind of work the organization does. Your brand, your BHAG, your ideal situation of the future, is inspiring instead of explaining. And it’s recognizable to your (prospect)donors, they can relate to it because they want to achieve the same goal. What’s the BHAG of your organization? Do you know it by heart?

We lost contact
For those of you who lack a BHAG: you once had one, I’m sure. The BHAG was clear in the very beginning of the existence of the organization you work for. The people who founded the organization knew exactly what problems they wanted to solve. It all started with a clear vision of a better world in the future. Along the way, the founders have maybe died or got disconnected to the organization. New boards and new directors recreated the strategic direction and may have lost touch with the BHAG that was there in the beginning. And while wandering away from the original BHAG, donors have wandered away too. They could no longer relate to the organization. Although maybe the organizations core business did not change much, the show-window of the organization changed and the donors got confused and lost touch. How do your donor segments experience your brand and the work you do? It’s helpful to check where your organization stands.Moon

Creating a BHAG starts with talking to the founder(s) of your organization. What was their ultimate goal? And years later, are you still on track or did you take another route? I asked the founder of the organization I work for what kind of big goal he had in mind, years and years ago. He told me his dream. This dream he has had for years now, and how much he enjoyed the steps that had already been taken to make his dream come true. But he was convinced that even bigger steps were possible. He was able to think even bigger than he did before, and he presented me the perfect BHAG for my organization. Probably without even ever have heard of a BHAG. On top of this, his wonderful story made me believe we are trying to achieve a realistic goal, a dream I want to help come true, day in day out. But I also realized that, while we were busy explaining to our donors what we do and how we do it, we might have forgotten to tell them why we do what we do. The founder of our organization was not afraid of thinking big, and bigger. He had a dream, and he knows that his dream of yesterday and today will become the reality in the future. The strategic direction of our organization is focused on how to get to that hairy audacious finish-line. Is yours?

Elsbeth Takkenberg

Elsbeth works as senior fundraiser at VUmc Cancer Center Amsterdam. She has previously worked for Medecins Sans Frontieres, Plan Nederland and the University of Amsterdam. She is specialized in major gifts and legacies and is passionate about building strong and long lasting relationships between NGO's and donors.


Gerbren Deves · June 13, 2013 at 21:29

Great blog, Els, thanks!

Richard Turner · February 23, 2014 at 20:43

Hi Elsbeth,

I just read your piece (slow on the uptake). You might be interested on my reflections on setting a BHAG for the charity, SolarAId, I work for about 2.5 years ago. Its been transformational. I’ve done a number of blogs on it http://ifundraiser.wordpress.com/tag/bhag/


p.s. was the “great deal of marketing” person you refer to a scotsman by any chance?!

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