Does Benchmarking Actually Help?

March 8, 2019

I fondly remember my time as a fundraising consultant (for churches, of all things) some 20-plus years ago. When I met with the boards, I would comfortably spout some statistics (hey, my degree is in Stats — I have to have some use for that!) Almost without fail, some board members would tell me how their organization is different — that they are unique. I didn’t want to pop their bubble, but they were, in fact, typical.

Every organization that I have been with benchmarks itself on some level. For one of the Foundations I worked for, it might have been the return on investment ratios (hence evaluating the money managers) or comparing your donor pool size to other cities of similar scope.

However, I have found that the best benchmarking is to benchmark against yourself. Are you actually moving your average donation up year-over-year? How many times are you meeting with donors in a month? One of my favorite fundraising authors, Jason Lewis, has a great benchmarking tool (one that doesn’t even use dollars raised) to see if you are creating the right environment for fundraising.

I think that benchmarking is a great tool. It can hold fundraisers accountable (hence the difference between a campaign and a collection — a collection says that you will have more in your bank tomorrow than you do today. Think of it like a church plate that is passed through the pews.) Being a Type-A guy (and a stats guy), I really like benchmarking. If you are constantly measuring outcomes, you will be guaranteed to raise more money. But, the outcomes measured need not be dollars raised! Perhaps it is measuring moves management. Perhaps it is conversion of 1-time gifts to monthly (or multi-year) pledges.

One of my favorite volunteers that I worked with for many years, Lawrence Pascoe, always asks the question of the fundraising professional (when he canvassed his lawyer colleagues) — what is an appropriate gift that a lawyer should donate to charity? It doesn’t necessarily mean that you will get that gift, but it sets up a frame of reference.

The bigger question is “What benchmarks are relevant to me?” Far too often fundraisers pick benchmarks that only portray them in a positive light. I quickly learned while working in the church environment is that the truth is your friend. I think we need to examine some of the benchmarks that we strive for — how many donors do we have meaningful relationships with? How many of our donors have selected our charity as one of their Top 3 Charities of Choice?

Benchmarking is a great tool for supervisors as well. Jason Lewis says that there is a “Supervisory Problem in fundraising”. That is true. Perhaps the problem starts when the supervisor is measuring the wrong things…

Food for thought.

L’chaim, folks!