Bridging Strategy and Impact with OKRs


Discover how nonprofit Elemental Excelerator uses OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) to invest in climate technology and social impact. Learn how they align OKRs with their five-year plan, and remain flexible on the way to achieving ambitious goals.

Aligning OKRs with the 5-year plan

“One of the privileges of a nonprofit is that we get to find gaps and move into them,” says Dawn Lippert, founder and CEO of Elemental Excelerator. As a nonprofit investor, Elemental focuses on gaps at the intersection of climate change, social justice, and social impact.

“To accelerate our transition to a cleaner, healthier economy,” says Lippert, “we work on projects on the ground.” That’s why Elemental funds entrepreneurs to execute projects — often in partnership with front line communities. Another special quality? Sharing findings with capital providers and policymakers. Advances in any part of Elemental’s portfolio can help move the entire field forward.

‘Systemic change around climate’ is no small thing, but Elemental starts with strategy. To accomplish their five-year plan, Lippert and her team focus on three strategic pillars:

One: Invest in startup success.
Two: Partner Deeply.
Three: Inspire Action.

As Lippert was scaling the organization to drive impact, she brought on COO Avra van der Zee to help the team think through a big question: “How do we take a well-articulated vision and break it down to a year-over-year action plan?”

Part of their answer is by using OKRs.

Going from strategy to OKRs

As a first step, Elemental translated their strategic pillars into three global Objectives. It was easy, and some of their Key Results were very straightforward too. For instance, a Key Result for ‘Investing in Startup Success’ became ‘Catalyzing $20 billion into climate technology,’ easily meeting all the criteria for a good Key Result: specific, actionable, measurable, time-bound and aggressively realistic. Other Key Results, however, proved elusive. Take ‘Partnering Deeply’ — how would Elemental define and measure ‘depth’?

Sometimes, in order to get specific, it helps to zoom out. “Even in the very first OKR deck, we framed each Objective around the ‘why,’” says Lippert. “Why is Elemental trying to achieve this? What is our unique value add? Where are we positioned to unstick a tough problem, compared to other investors or organizations?”

Turning pillars into ‘priorities with support metrics’ required meaningful investment of the team’s attention, says Lippert, involving “workshops for the entire organization, from our leadership team to each individual team and then making sure that feedback flowed back up – a closed loop all in the language of OKRs.”

After many discussions, the abstract Objective of ‘Partnering Deeply’ evolved into more actionable Key Results, including ‘Catalyzing 500 climate solutions with industry and community partners.’ And the dialog continued so everyone understood what counted. “As the team got really familiar with the process,” says van der Zee, “we realized that the specificity around the O and the KRs helped us be action-oriented.” They used the same approach until every quarterly Key Result was refined, aligning with both one-year and five-year targets.

Remaining flexible and focused

At Elemental, OKRs help organize everyone’s thinking on challenging, multifaceted systems problems, and van der Zee says they’ve become “the key thread through our team meetings and our board meetings.” It helps that the team is rigorous about taking time to drill down on the context and assumptions that inform their decisions. Lippert and van der Zee explain that this kind of questioning has paid benefits many times over, even beyond aligning around Objectives or checking progress towards Key Results.

“We have our pillars, but our specific targets might change when we’re one year or two years into the cycle,” says van der Zee. “We use the OKR process to help us stay nimble, adaptive and creative. We have quarterly check-ins and ways to articulate what changed and why.” Lippert seconds that, saying: “It’s not ‘set it and forget it’ — it’s highly iterative.” It keeps everyone in the organization vigilant – and, even more important – flexible.

Elemental has to be adaptable. In the climate space, technology is changing quickly. “We have to be innovating just as fast as the startups that we work with,” says Lippert. A change in government policy can also set off big ripple effects. Take the Inflation Reduction Act, for example. As federal funding shifted in August 2022, the team re-evaluated one of their original Key Results: Reaching 10 million people with Elemental’s products, insights, and case studies.

Initially, that seemed like an excellent KR, and very achievable: Lippert’s TED talk had already reached more than 1.5 million people. But Elemental’s Policy Lab had recently launched a local climate action toolkit together with the African American Mayors Association, providing local mayors and leaders with “a map of key initiatives and local policies,” says Lippert, “like energy sources, transportation, key policy actions, key funding opportunities and technologies that might be useful.” In light of historic federal funding opportunities, they re-evaluated their metric. ”We realized,” says van der Zee, “that the key result should zero in on reaching the right people rather than the sheer number of people.”

So while they kept the Key Result of reaching 10 million, they’ve refined it. “We’ll still hit that 10 million,” Lippert says, “but we’re also focusing on questions like ‘who are the key influencers?’” Knowing the appetite for examples of project deployments that embed community feedback early, the team organized around an OKR to center case studies tailored to the needs of state and municipal leaders.

Measuring impact

This flexibility has served Elemental in other areas, too. Many organizations set their budgets, then write their OKRs—and never the twain shall meet. The logic is that organizations need to determine what resources can be applied before setting realistic goals. Elemental, however, flips the script: “We embedded our OKR process into our budget process early,” says Lippert, “Measurement of the OKRs is very much tied to how we prioritize time and resources across the organization.”

Integrating OKRs with budgeting helps ensure that Elemental is “driven by where we find the biggest impact,” says Lippert, “and where it then means that our team spends time and doesn’t spend time.” It helps them excel in execution, while also creating space for innovating and iterating.

Now midway through its five-year plan, results have been remarkably satisfying. OKRs have made it easier to track output against mission, and the company can proudly point to these results since founding: It’s invested in over 150 growth-stage companies who are active in all 50 states and globally, and have gone on to raise $8B in follow-on funding.

Overall, Elemental is on track to meet its five-year goals. “Our experience with OKRs is that the more you use them,” says Lippert. “The more powerful they are.”