• Peter Gross

The Goal Setting Science I Use to Coach Nonprofit Professionals

Updated: Apr 21

My approach to coaching for nonprofit professionals starts with identifying your goals. It is the focus of our first working session, and perhaps one of the most valuable steps we take in our coaching experience together. There is more to goal setting than talking about the things you want and how you will achieve them, though. In fact, there is science behind our motivation to pursue and accomplish our goals.


In today’s post, I will walk you through the fascinating brain science behind goal setting.


Why We Set Goals

In coaching, we start by looking broadly at your life and the roles you have: spouse, donor relationship manager, internal service provider, partner, parent, volunteer, and many others. When you are looking at the big picture of your life, it can feel overwhelming to consider all you want to accomplish and the different paths you need to take to make it all happen. There are different areas of our lives where we might have aspirations and dreams, from our personal or home life to our career and professional endeavors.


By working on goal setting with my coaching clients, we establish a vision for you to aim for. In that vision, you are where you want to be, and it will inspire you to take action and make it a reality. Goal setting helps you to keep your eye on the prize and focus on what is important to you.


Choosing Primary Goals

In the first session of our coaching engagement, I work with nonprofit professionals to set two to three primary goals. To do this, we look broadly at the opportunities you see for improvement in each of your roles and conduct an exercise that allows you to hone in on the goals you feel are both (1) achievable and (2) impactful.


These primary goals serve as the basis for the work we do over the course of our coaching engagement. And we constantly revisit them to ensure that they still align with our priorities and that, if circumstances change, we can alter our goals to match the new reality.

A flag pin is placed at the center of a target, representing achieving your goals when goal setting.

The Science Behind Goal Setting for Nonprofit Professionals

To really understand why goal setting is such a crucial step in nonprofit professional coaching, we have to look at how our brains work. Brain science is at the core of my approach to coaching: In fact, I am certified in Brain-Based Coaching with the NeuroLeadership Institute.


The first step in understanding how to harness your brain to best reach your goals is to break the process into two primary areas: goal representation and goal pursuit.


Goal Representation: How We Define & Think About Goals

The first cognitive link to setting goals is goal representation, or how we define and think about goals in our minds. Goal representation involves:

  1. Defining your goal succinctly in language that motivates you to pursue it.

  2. Being succinct and specific about how you will know when the goal is reached. and what it’s linked to, and exploring your motivation to achieve it.

Goal representation is often considered via two separate ways of thinking: the “why” and the “how.” You can look at goals at the “why” level, or your justification for wanting it, or at the “how” level, or the actions you’ll take to reach your goals.

  • The “why” in goal representation is the larger picture of how achieving this goal fits in with who you want to be in those roles. It taps into the parts of your brain that support your motivation to achieve your goal.

  • The “how” approach is connected to the action-oriented motor learning system of the brain. Simply put, it’s the actions that we take to accomplish goals.

Finding a balance between the “why” and the “how” is one of the key values I bring to coaching nonprofit professionals. And we carefully work with both during the coaching engagement. However, during the goal setting process, we intentionally focus on the “why.” Having a clear picture of “why” you are working on a goal is what allows you to overcome the inevitable challenges and setbacks that occur in every significant change in our lives.


When a particular action does not work the way we had hoped, it is easy to view that as defeat. However, when we stay connected to the “why” we are able to view that defeat as an opportunity for learning and pivot to actions that move in that direction.

A comparison between Goal Representation (defining and thinking about a goal) and Goal Pursuit (getting from the start of a goal to achieving it).

Goal Pursuit: Sustaining Motivation

The other cognitive step toward reaching your goals is goal pursuit or the plan for getting from the start of a goal to achieving it. Motivation is essential to helping my coaching clients take that journey. Without motivation, there is no drive to make changes or take actions to move you closer to accomplishing your goals.


By setting primary goals that you are focused on accomplishing, and that you are motivated to reach, you are more likely to feel and stay energized to take action and make progress toward them.


Approach or Avoid: Goal Framing

Your ability to stay motivated to pursue your goals starts with framing your goal. When I help you define your goals, I assess whether your goal motivation preference is one of “approach” or “avoid.” Framing your goal with an approach motivation is moving toward something positive, while an avoid motivation is aiming to prevent something.


Take the goal example of trying to improve your relationship with the staff of your department: development, finance or any other. This goal can be represented as moving toward something new or away from something old.

A diagram displaying the difference between Avoid Motivation (reducing the tension between leaders within an organization) and Approach Motivation (improving collaboration between leaders)

Neither motivation is wrong. What matters is that the goal, as defined and written, is motivating for you. As your coach, my objective is to help you choose goals that match your preferred motivation framing and, thus, improve your likelihood of achieving your goal.


The Role of Expectancy & Value in Motivation

Goal setting can be challenging. Setting clear goals that support the vision you have for yourself, or that you truly believe you can be successful in achieving, is something many clients struggle with. That’s where motivation is crucial to the guidance I provide you in my coaching.


Our expectancies (how confident we are that we can achieve our goals) and task values (how important achieving the goals is to us) are two inputs that determine our level of motivation. When I’m working with a nonprofit professional client, I encourage them to evaluate how confident they are in achieving a goal and how important it is to them.

The chart visualizes goal expectancies and values.

In the chart above, four goals have different expectancies and values to a client.

  • Goal A: The goal is very important but has a very low chance of success. It is not likely a good candidate for our coaching engagement.

  • Goal B: Alternatively, Goal B is very likely to succeed but has very little value for you.. Again, it is not likely a good candidate for our work together.

  • Goal C: It is important to you and has a reasonable chance of success. It makes a potentially good candidate.

  • Goal D: While rare, Goal D represents the direction in which you want to focus your goals. This would almost certainly be included in our coaching engagement.


My job as a coach is to help you identify goals that are a good blend of expectancy and value, so that you stay motivated and have the best opportunity to achieve them and create the life you want.


The science behind goal setting plays a significant role in my coaching strategy, and my ability to provide valuable support and guidance to my nonprofit coaching clients. If you’re interested in learning more about how my coaching services can help you create the life you want, contact me.