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Full Speed Ahead! Handling Unrealistic Short-Term Goal Expectations

By Lilya Wagner on January 24, 2012No Comment

Ask any leadership guru to define “leadership” and you will get an earful about how the best leaders have vision, can communicate well, can motivate others, and can help employees and board to move the organization forward.  But what often is missing is the fulfilled expectation of sensible, realistic decisions from leaders, and in place of these decisions are unrealistic demands made on employees.  One is tempted to groan in agony and say, “Hold on!  Do you realize what you’re asking of me/us??”

Peter Drucker recognized that leading from any position or rank requires more effort than traditional leadership roles demand because it isn’t something we’re acculturated to practice.  He said, “The [person] who focuses on efforts and who stresses his downward authority is a subordinate no matter how exalted his title and rank.  But the [person] who focuses on contribution and who takes responsibility for results, no matter how junior, is in the most literal sense of the phrase, ‘top management.’”1

When asked for her views on the matter of unrealistic short-term goal expectations, my fundraising colleague Patrice Hieb responded from two perspectives:

1) From the perspective of the support staff

2) From the perspective of the VP/CEO

As Patrice described it, the vice president for advancement comes back from the board’s strategic planning session with grand ideas she(2) wants to implement immediately. Because she has been distracted with wrapping up the last capital campaign and gearing up for the next, she hasn’t brought the team together to plan the coming year. At the staff meeting she shares her excitement and begins delegating several mailings and events she wants to see happen in the immediate future. The support staff is worn out from the celebration gala they just finished, and even though they like some of the ideas, they realize the expectations are unrealistic for the timeline the vice-president demands.  They are tempted to “lose it” and direct the demands back at her.  They want to say, “Could YOU manage to do this in such a short period of time?”  But wisdom prevails.

After throwing some sideways glances at each other, the staff members begin to make suggestions, each one building on the other.  First, they recommend a staff planning session that would allow them to refocus, regroup and rejuvenate.  It’s entirely possible, of course, that the vice-president truly doesn’t realize how mentally and physically worn out the support staff personnel are.  Another staff member suggests they poll board members to see who would be involved in implementing some of the new ideas, and of course this means that the staff needs to flesh out the suggestions and thereby not only be better prepared for implementation but also have more input and buy themselves some badly needed time.  Finally, they request a chance to prioritize and map out a timeline of what can be reasonably accomplished.

Patrice goes on to present a second problem of unrealistic short-term goal expectations, this time from a vice-president’s perspective.  This fundraising professional has received a directive from the board to add a new element to and increase the dollar goal of the current capital campaign which was supposed to be wrapping up in the immediate future. None of the board members have been directly involved in fundraising, so they don’t understand the challenge of finding new donors on short notice or going back to ask for an increase in current pledges. In addition, there is already a celebration event on the calendar and printed materials for the event have been designed, although not printed. The vice-president realizes her team is burned out on this campaign, so feels caught between the board and her team.

What should the vice president do about this directive from the board?  She might request a time at the next board meeting to review the new element and discuss the priorities and any possible new donors the members may have in mind. This would be a major attempt to get buy-in from the individual members to be involved in the fundraising to reach the new goal within a timeframe that allows for the campaign to wrap up as planned. An even better idea would be that she turn to the development committee to look at donor lists and the overall campaign plan and create allies who can influence the rest of the board.  However, if (as occurs in some instances) she is not allowed access to the board, or there is no development committee, she is really in a quandary.  Then she might turn to a trusted major donor who truly is supportive of the campaign and ask for advice.  This person in turn could influence his peers.

Ultimately some suggestions for managing the nightmare of handling unrealistic short-term goal expectations with at least some panache and professionalism might be the following:

1)      Determine what motivates this expectation.  Is it genuine enthusiasm, or lack of empathy, or simply lack of knowledge of what’s going on?  Sometimes understanding why a leader makes these kinds of unrealistic demands may lead to a natural and sensible solution.

2)      Whenever possible, hold a level-headed discussion with the leader who is making these demands, but make sure you have your facts in place and have a reasonable argument on why movement toward a goal should take a more careful and slower pace.

3)      Anticipate these kinds of dilemmas by creating allies with whom you can discuss the matter of staying on course, of being judicious in making decisions that may seem or are precipitous.  These allies can sometimes influence peers better than you who are being asked to perform the risky if not impossible task.

4)      Finally, learn to differentiate between enthusiasm and recklessness and not react in a similarly irresponsible fashion as the demands made on you!

1The authors have substituted “person” in this quote for “man.”  Drucker, Peter F.  The Effective Executive. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993, p. 53.

2 In these columns on Fundraising/Leadership Nightmares we alternate use of gender instead of the cumbersome “he or she.”

Comments, suggestions, even arguments are most welcome.  Our colleagues in nonprofit management and fundraising can always use fresh approaches, new answers to old questions, and thought-provoking ideas.  Dr. Lilya Wagner, CFRE, is an experienced fundraiser, consultant, editor and author, teacher and trainer. She can be reached at

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