Another great post from my friend, mentor and all around fantabulous lady, Debbie Meyers at the University of Maryland- Enjoy!
Like many things in life, bench marking has its good points and bad points. On the one hand, after hours of research and analysis, it may end up telling you what you already know or nothing you need to know. But it can also provide you with an idea or two about how to proceed with your project, or validation that you are indeed doing the right things the right way.
And let's face it: sometimes we don't have a choice. The boss says bench mark, so we bench mark. End of story.
Regardless of your situation, here are some questions you should consider asking yourself before you start your bench marking journey.
1. What am I trying to find out, exactly?
Sound like a big duh? Not really. A common request for information involves giving societies, where we are asked to help the bench marker "understand how peer institutions establish various levels of giving and the respective benefits for each level." It may be semantics, but I don’t think that’s what you want to understand.
To find out what you’re trying to find out, ask yourself that question, several times, until you are crystal clear on your task. Your conversation with yourself may go something like this:
Q: Why am I asking other organizations about levels and benefits?
A: To see how they do it.
A: Because I want to make sure I’m following Best Practices. (In capitals, because it is now the holy shrine at which everyone in our profession now worships as we strive to take our programs to the Next Level – but that’s another blog topic)
A: So I can ultimately figure out how make my donors feel recognized and appreciated.
AHA! Now you’ve got the right answer. If that’s the true reason, then why not ask your donors what would make them feel recognized and appreciated? But let’s say you need some validation that you’re on the right track in your levels and benefits. Remember that your focus on your donors, not the inner workings of the institutions you’re querying, and proceed to Question 2.
2. Do I have the right pool to bench mark against?
So your boss says, “Call XYZ University – everyone says they have an awesome donor relations program.”
But is XYZ the right fit? If I’m a small private institution, will I care about or benefit from how a large public institution does things, regardless of how awesome their program is or how many stewardship rock stars run their show? My levels are based on MY donors; your levels should be based on YOUR donors. Run the numbers and see where the logical groupings are.
Benefits don’t benefit anyone unless they are meaningful. Some donors want parking. Others want preferred seating at events. We are apples and oranges. So what kind of oranges would your donors like?
Identify institutions whose mission, size, staffing and donor base are as close to yours as possible. It never hurts to throw in some others, for they may provide you with some good ideas or aspirations. But your most meaningful data will be from your peer group.
3. Am I asking the right questions in a user-friendly format?
The best way to get an answer is to keep your questions simple and clear. That may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many questions I get that require me to pull data or analyze a report. If you want a timely and accurate response, keep it simple.
You may want to include an example, for clarity and consistency: something like, “We do it this way. How do you do it?” Having a mix of open-ended and closed-ended questions will most likely give you more information, and certainly more context.
Also, have someone outside your department read the questions to make sure you haven’t been in your own little world too long with this project.
4. Would Miss Manners approve?
Remember who’s doing who the favor. Professional courtesy is a wonderful thing, and many will respond to your survey just because they are professionally courteous, but it has to go both ways to work.
Take a few minutes to make your introduction warm, friendly and informational: here’s who I am, here’s what I’m trying to do, why and here’s why I chose you. (Great opportunity to flatter the responder!) Sometimes including one survey to a group, and letting everyone in the group see who else is in the group, greases the skids in a way that one-on-one doesn’t.
Make it easy for your responders to reply. Ask their preference in answering by phone or email. If your questions lend themselves to a Survey Monkey format, all the better. If by phone, let them know how long it will take. Offer to share results once the survey is completed. That gives them an incentive to participate and shows that you are invested in the project’s success. Include a response deadline, and offer to be available if they have questions.
Most importantly, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. If one of your questions is something common like endowment minimums or naming opportunities, check the institution’s website and see if that information is already available. And do let the person know in the intro that you have already done that. You will earn huge brownie points.
After you finish and send the survey results back, it’s a nice touch to add a short summary of what you learned, ending the process on a positive note.
Happy bench marking!