You Can’t Change What You Don’t Measure

Earlier this year, the Council to the Aid of Education (CAE) reported its findings from the Annual Voluntary Support of Education Survey. The data revealed that in 2016, colleges and universities raised a total of over $41 billion, with most gifts going to current operations. Of the institutions that reported, over one-quarter of that $41 billion – 27.1% – was raised by just 20 institutions.

Now you might be asking yourself: What percentage of that $41 billion is our institution? Are we also directing most of our gifts to current operations? What are reasonable performance expectations for our program? In short, is our program successful?

But what does “successful” or “good” look like?

A benchmarking study can help you figure out the answer to that and many other questions. Remember the adage “You can’t change what you don’t measure.” Benchmarking provides the measurements, with insights into things such as overall fundraising success, resource allocation, or staff size. Armed with data on your program compared to a cohort of peer institutions, you can make data-driven decisions about the future of your program.

However, a benchmarking study is more than data collection, and there are a number of questions to ask yourself to help your institution decide if benchmarking is the right approach.

Key Questions for Successful Benchmarking Studies

What do you want to know?

This may seem like an obvious question, but it’s a critical one. Take time to think about what data would truly be the most useful for your organization. Are you interested primarily in seeing how your institution stacks up in terms of quantitative data like fundraising results, staffing, or expenditures? Or are you interested in qualitative data, such as institutional policies? Or do you have even more specific needs, like a review of your special events or parents program?

Who are your peers?

Selecting the right cohort will give you the most useful data for your institution. For instance, you may be a small, local arts organization. Knowing the fundraising numbers for a large, internationally known museum would be interesting, but how would the data help your program grow? Choosing cohort institutions based on shared characteristics will yield the most actionable results. That said, aspirational peer institutions can be useful, lending a “best in class” perspective – but it’s equally important to choose those aspirants carefully.

But of course benchmarking isn’t just for academic institutions. Medical centers and hospitals can develop cohorts based on bed count, specialty, or grateful patient programs to examine their fundraising results, whereas arts organizations can focus on membership, sponsorships, or their foundation relations programs.

So how do you choose? Cohorts can be selected on a wide variety of parameters: everything from total private support to class size to geography.  Below are a few categories and examples to consider.

Category Examples
Fundraising dollars Total dollars raised, average gift per alumni
Geography City, state, region, country
Program features Existence of a medical school, school of architecture
Academic standing US News and World ranking, selectivity, enrollment
Religious affiliation Jesuit, Catholic, Jewish

What do you need to ask?

Think back to your original question for the study as a whole: what data would you need to have to be able to fully answer the question? You won’t get the data you need if you don’t ask the right questions. You also need to consider whether your institution can answer the questions. If you can’t, it will be hard to make useful comparisons. Such a roadblock might also signal that a question won’t be useful overall: depending on why your institution can’t answer it, other institutions might be stumped as well.

Are you comparing apples to apples?

When you get data, you want to make sure that the data is comparable. Definitions are critical to ensuring that everyone answers the questions in the same way (or to the best of their ability in a similar way). For instance, you want to make sure that you are comparing cash to cash or pledges to pledges. Comparing cash to pledges won’t be helpful in an analysis.

How will you use the data?

You have all the data: Now what are you going to do with it? Having the data is only part of the battle – deriving insight and identifying actions make the study truly worthwhile. What does the data reveal? How do you compare to peer institutions? What can you learn from the data? Once you understand what the data shows, you can decide how you want to act on it. At this stage, it’s important to think about priorities. Based on the cohort data, you may want to improve your parents program, invest in more planned giving officers, and create an advancement communications position. However, you probably won’t be able to do all of those at the same time. Going into the study with a clear understanding of program priorities will help ensure success in using and implementing the benchmarking data.

In Closing

Because benchmarking studies are highly customized for each client, the above five questions are just a few things to consider when planning a benchmarking project. Asking these five fundamental questions before you embark on a benchmarking project will be help your institution to maximize the many benefits of benchmarking.

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