The Smartest Way to Guarantee Mediocre Results

Published by Rob Woods on

In the year 2000 my charity employer sent me on a course. Brand new to fundraising, many of the ideas were extremely useful. And I was impressed by a neat system which our tutor gave us to make sure the fundraising goals we set were effective.

You may have been told the same thing. Over the years I’ve been told frequently that my goals will be useless unless they’re SMART. If you haven’t heard of this tool, the idea is that goals should be Specific; Measurable; Achievable; Realistic (or Relevant) and Time-bound.

Advice on goal-setting from a Paralympic athlete

While she was a student, Karen Darke was climbing sea cliffs near Aberdeen in Scotland and had a dreadful accident. She has been paralysed from the chest down ever since.


Karen tells her fascinating story in her autobiography If You Fall . I was so stirred by Karen’s ability to overcome immense difficulty that I decided to ask her for help. I explained that the extraordinary feats she describes in the book – climbing giant mountains like El Capitan; hand-cycling the length of Japan; winning two Paralympic silver medals – would seem virtually impossible to most people, and yet Karen has clearly made a habit of defying the odds.

Since everyone who works for a charity needs to sometimes overcome difficulty (David and Goliath ideas for cunning, heroic fundraisers)  I asked Karen how repeatedly achieves at such a high level.

In particular I wanted to know if this serial high achiever sets herself goals which are Achievable or Realistic.

What do you think she said?

‘No, never. How it usually happens is I’m chatting with a friend and one of us says ‘Wouldn’t IBAmazing if…’ And it’s happened so often that my friends and I call these challenges WIBAs’.

‘So you wouldn’t call the goal to enter the Paralympics or do yr first marathon Achievable and Realistic?’

‘No, far from it.’ She laughed. ‘But Rob, I’m honestly not that special. When we get excited about climbing a new mountain or whatever, I’m usually as daunted by how impossible it seems as anyone else would be. But if there is a thing I do, which does seem less usual, it’s to then write down my WIBA and so I feel excited by it, and yet be able to live with the fact it seems impossible

‘And then each and every day I ask myself what could I do today to make the impossible WIBA a bit more possible.’

A light bulb went on for me. ‘So each of those things you do, are they Specific? Could you Measure whether you do them that day, are they Time-bound, and Relevant…and Karen, most of all, are you saying those daily things you do are ACHIEVABLE or REALISTIC?

‘I’ve never thought of it that way, but they are always small, daily steps, so yes, absolutely’.

So SMART goals can help

Phew. So goals which are SMART can be a valuable tool to help us make progress in our fundraising. But only for when we break down our Big Hairy Goal into manageable chunks. The danger comes when we use them for the wrong purpose, to avoid feeling uncomfortable.

I recently spoke to a highly successful business coach, David Hyner who has been studying success habits for over a decade by interviewing more than 240 world class achievers in sport, business, the arts etc.

Through these interviews he has found that elite performers never set goals which at the time seem Achievable, because to do so would be deriving future focus only from what has been achieved in the past.

When David told one of his interviewees that SMART is the most common goal setting system taught in businesses, charities (and indeed schools), one of them replied, ‘What, you mean we’re setting them up to aim for mediocrity?’

David asks, ‘Can you think of a single noteworthy, life-enhancing achievement in the history of the human-race, that would have happened if the key player had aimed for something (cue your wimpiest voice) Realistic?’

I can’t think of one.

Last week I flew to IFC in the Netherlands, where I learned extraordinary, uplifting fundraising ideas that will help my clients and I to raise more money to alleviate suffering. But I was only able to step inside a piece of metal and fly through the air to get there because the Wright Brothers and others since set themselves goals which were a long way from Realistic.

So now I dare you to take five minutes to do this exercise. There is nothing to lose and masses to gain. Ask yourself, ‘what achievement in my job would feel truly AMAZING if I could make it happen?’: eg DOUBLE the number of marathon participants I recruit next year; or TREBLE the number of six figure major gifts I secure; or create a team culture so outstanding that income will soar and the greatest fundraising talent will flock to our door…

Karen’s three steps to richer results and a richer life

  1. Find the WIBA that excites you
  2. Write it down today and decide to live with its (seeming) impossibility
  3. Each day, every day, play the game of finding and doing something to make it more possible.

Rob Woods

Rob Woods (@woods_rob) is an author and award-winning fundraising trainer. Initially at the NSPCC, he has been giving courses that lift financial results for eleven years. He is a tutor for the IOF Academy in the UK and his clients include CRUK, Oxfam, Tate and UNICEF. If you found this blog useful you can check out Rob’s courses, blogs and more free resources, including How to influence supporters when you speak - the six common mistakes and how to avoid them at www.brightspotfundraising.co.uk


alistairW · October 29, 2013 at 01:54

Great post, Rob. Keep up the good work. We are told to set SMART goals during our annual employee appraisals and this post encapsulates everything’s that wrong with that system! Hamsters in the wheel syndrome!

James Herlihy, Pareto Fundraising · October 29, 2013 at 23:21

Really great post Rob, thanks!

Susan Thompson · November 14, 2013 at 19:14

Hi Rob and Karen – thanks for this, I love it and will be spending the next hour creating a bright and colourful version of my biro scribbled WIBA on a large sheet of paper. I intend to display it on my motivation board for daily encouragement.

Dave Strand · February 25, 2014 at 19:54

Great article Rob.
I own a fundraising company, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked a client, “How much money do you want to raise?”, and gotten the answer, “As much as we can.” – nonspecific, and vague.

When my clients do set goals, they’re usually “realistic”. Why not shoot for the moon? Set a goal that challenges and excites the whole group! No one gets fired up about paying the bills. People want to be inspired. For that to happen, they need to be pushed out of their comfort zone.

Set a huge goal, and then let’s create a strategy to accomplish it.

Once in awhile, I’ll find someone who’s teachable – willing to take suggestions. The results can be thrilling.

The Smartest Way to Guarantee Mediocre Results | Rob Woods | | Advanced Vectors · October 29, 2013 at 08:47

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The smartest way to guarantee mediocre results « Woods Training Woods Training · December 4, 2013 at 12:46

[…] Karen Darke gives us an insight in to her method of setting realistic and achievable goals.  You can read about it here. […]

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