The Missing Piece of Your Strategic Planning: Conduct a Benchmarking Study and Advance Your Fundraising and Career
Tis the Season for Strategic Planning! Now is the time of year that many higher education fundraisers are doing two things:
I totally understand you are busy. Trust me. Between travel, work, and personal responsibilities, I’m stretched too.
But, I think you should consider one more project: a benchmarking study. It's the missing piece of your strategic planning process.
A benchmarking study is a survey of peer organizations that will give you insightful information about what your program should be doing. I assure you that this process doesn’t take long. The data you obtain will be so useful to you, I guarantee you that you will not regret investing the time.
A benchmarking study can help you:
How do I get started? I have no time for this…
This doesn’t have to take a long time. If you employ an intern or student worker, have them help you with the process. The first phase of identifying your peer institutions is the hardest part. Just hang with me and you'll find you can fit this in and that the long term benefits (to your institution and your own career) are worth it.
Here’s the 5 phase process for doing a benchmarking study:
Phase 1: Research
List your “peer institutions”. You know at least some of them. They might be your in-state rivals or other nearby institutions of similar size, age and student population. Your peer institutions are the ones that your boss always asks about in meetings: “What is XYZ College doing in this area?”
Note: There is a big difference between a peer institution and an aspirant institution.
An aspirant institutions is one that your institution wants to be like but isn’t. They are a significant level-up from you. They may have 50-100 years more institutional history, a much larger endowment, a larger student body or other significant indicators that make them just a bit beyond your organization.
Sometimes leadership or volunteers believe a rival institution is a peer institution when it is actually a aspirant institution. When I was at Southern Miss, we were frequently compared with Mississippi State and Ole Miss, but Southern Miss is actually much more like Eastern Carolina University or the University of Memphis than either of those in-state rivals.
It’s a bit dangerous to confuse an aspirant institution with a peer institution. You would be comparing apples to papayas. However, you can include them in your study because they are a great source of inspiration and ideas. Just mark them clearly in your data as aspirant and understand that they will likely have bigger budgets and bigger results.
If you only can come up with a few institutions, do some internet searches to find similar organizations. You might google, “liberal arts colleges more than 100 years old” or “southern universities with endowments of less than $100 Million”. I recommend you have a list of 10-12 peer institutions and perhaps 3-5 aspirant institutions because not all the institutions will respond.
Once you have a short list of potential peer and aspirant institutions, you (or your intern) should do a bit of research. You need to identity the equivalent program director at those places. For example, if your study is for annual giving, you will want to find the Director of Annual Giving at each place on your list. Record this staffer’s name, title, phone and email address in a spreadsheet.
Phase 2: Create survey
I recommend you ask a mixture of questions in these categories:
You can follow this process to design your survey for any area of development but here is what I’ve used before for annual giving.
Annual Fund Questionnaire
Phase 3: Solicit participation
Take your own survey for your institution putting in your data and make sure each question is clear and makes sense. When you do this, time yourself, so you have an accurate range of how long this will take.
Construct an email to the staffers you recorded contact info for in Phase 1. Let them know that you would love for them to participate and the survey will only take XX minutes. (I would recommend that it take no longer than 15 minutes.)
Then, and this is important, tell them that you will share the results of the survey with them to benefit their program as a thank you for their participation. Provide a deadline and let them know that you’ll remind them closer to the deadline. Keep your window not longer than 2 weeks out, otherwise there is no urgency to participate.
Remind them 4-5 days later if they haven’t participated and again closer to the deadline. You can even through in a phone call 3 days before the deadline, especially if there is a school that you need feedback from for political reasons.
Phase 4: Analysis
Review your survey results, noting where your institution does well and where you fall short. What are the great ideas that stick out? What resources do other organizations have that you don’t? How might you get access to those resources?
Compose your results into an executive summary sheet of 1-3 pages that can be included with your strategic plan or sent to relevant stakeholders as a stand-alone report. This report will be for your institution. You'll also need to consolidate and package up the raw survey results to send to your peer participants in Phase 5.
Phase 5: Follow-Up
Be professional and prompt with your follow up. Send a copy of every survey or the consolidated results to all survey participants. Do this within 2 weeks from the survey deadline. Thank them profusely and perhaps include an invitation to establish an on-going professional support relationship.
Maybe you start a Facebook or LinkedIn group where you can compare data throughout the year on an ad-hoc basis. These relationships are of great value to your institution and to your own career.
This process shouldn’t be intimidating and when you are done with it, you will have some important tools in your strategic planning process.
I did this exact process at The University of Southern Mississippi to prove my point that the annual fund had historically under-performed. The benchmarking study certainly showed the under-performance but it also showed similar institutions were raising so much more money, which meant there was no reason Southern Miss couldn’t do it too with strategy, consistency and investment. I’m happy to say that’s exactly what happened. I’m pleased to report the program has now exceeded the five year goals I set for it back in 2011-2012 when I did the benchmarking study.
If you do this project, you’ll have some persuasive data to lobby for changes to your program. Plus, you’ll be seen as a self-starter not only in your office or institution but in the broader development community as well. It’s worth it.
Have you undertaken a benchmarking study? Why or why not? What conclusions came out of your study?
As always, comments and questions are welcome and encouraged!
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Jessica Cloud, CFRE
I've been called the Tasmanian Devil of fundraising and I'm here to talk shop with you.