PMA Consulting, LLC

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[Strategic Planning Series] Benchmarking – Metrics vs. Strategies


PMA is excited to introduce a new, ongoing series on Strategic Planning. Our consultants will weigh in on subjects related to strategic planning in the nonprofit sector – trends, fresh perspectives and tales from the field.

We’ve heard it said before that benchmarking can be counterproductive to strategic planning.  Just as board members and senior staff are sitting down to think creatively, statistics about what is happening at other organizations are introduced, and the group instantly begins to narrow its thinking.  Instead of rethinking the way you do business, you’re instead focused on incremental improvements:

“Well if they can raise 10% more, surely we can too, right?”

“That organization served twice as many students last year – can we match them?”

“How can we add a board member from the new corporation in town, like that organization did?”

Sound familiar?  PMA agrees that there is nothing strategic about this kind of planning.  Though gathering data is a critical component of planning, it should not be done in a way to dampen the creative process or use other organizations as the benchmark by which you measure your own success.

So why benchmark at all?  PMA suggests that benchmarking is far more useful than just a spreadsheet full of metrics.  Good ideas are being implemented every day at organizations across the country and throughout the world.  Learning how another organization met a similar objective to your own can be a very useful input during the strategic planning process.  Here’s how:

  • Determine Areas of Interest – What are the issues your planning group is considering?  The more specific you can be, the better.  Benchmarking “general fundraising strategies” is unlikely to yield particularly useful data, but if your organization has “difficulty communicating a complex case for support,” you are more likely to find strategies that speak to your organization’s unique needs. Narrow your research to 5-6 areas where you can do a deep dive.
  • Conduct Internet Research – Google is an astonishing research tool.  To our example above, entering the search term “complex case for support” turned up a 2012 article about a YMCA in Indiana and a book about fund development that includes a passage about a hospital.  Different synonyms for the word “complex” and “case for support” are likely to turn up pathways to identifying organizations for strategy benchmarking.
  • Identify Individuals for Interviews – While google can do a lot for you, there is nothing like a one-on-one interview to reveal usable information.  PMA finds that staff members at most nonprofit organizations are very willing to help another organization (particularly one that is not in its immediate area).  Reach out with an e-mail or phone call, and set up time for a 15-20 minute conversation.  If you are respectful of the individual’s time and have specific questions prepared, the interview should be an effective and efficient way to benchmark strategies.
  • Gather Research and Report Out – Unlike metrics, which are typically presented in spreadsheets, reporting out on strategies is likely to require a brief profile of the organization, their problems and solutions, and how to extrapolate for use by your organization.  This information can be useful when pondering a specific need (as above with the complex case for support), or at the front end of the planning process to encourage participants to consider outside-the-box thinking in problem solving.

Why reinvent the wheel?  Looking outside your organization (and your immediate region) for inspiration can be the ticket to making your next strategic planning session a home run.