Beyond Benchmarking: What the data can’t tell you

The title of this blog may strike you as a little odd, particularly given that Graham-Pelton Consulting recently partnered with IDPE to deliver the most in-depth benchmarking of UK Schools’ fundraising seen to date. And there is certainly a wealth of valuable insights to be analysed and implemented here. Yet it is important to remember that benchmarking is only one tool among many that can influence a step-change in fundraising results. My colleagues have previously blogged on the limitations of benchmarking, and the fact that there is no such thing as an average school, but what does this mean when placed alongside the context of benchmarking results?

Here are three questions that no amount of benchmarking will ever be able to answer:

1. Do you have a secret weapon?

My work with Schools typically starts with a series of 1:1 internal discussions, focus groups and resource reviews to help me get a sense of what makes the institution tick. In embarking on this journey of discovery, I like to challenge myself to uncover and articulate a Unique Selling Proposition that has the potential to leapfrog over best practices and accelerate fundraising. I have yet to find a School that doesn’t have a secret weapon but unfortunately no amount of desk research will help you identify yours. There is simply no substitute for taking the time to have candid conversations with your colleagues to identify the magical affinity felt by alumni of the 1980s, or the connections your Head of Sport has to numerous industry sponsors.

2. How can you strengthen and overcome your Achilles’ heel?

Conversely, the conscientious, driven nature of fundraisers tends to mean that most are often well aware of the unique challenges their School faces. Perhaps multiple false-starts in fundraising campaigns, a history of poor stewardship and burnt bridges, or simply a high turnover of staff pose particular challenges to your institution. Benchmarking will certainly help you to educate colleagues on how these challenges could negatively impact your fundraising, but it can’t help you turn back the clock and change things beyond your influence. Your peer network is key here – our CEO often says that there is no problem we haven’t already seen elsewhere, so the likelihood is that there are others out there who share your challenges, and hopefully even some who have overcome them. Chance connections I have made via networking on social media, events and conferences have provided me with a resource pool that I can call on whenever I find myself ‘stuck’. Despite being a naturally competitive bunch, I am always humbled by the generosity of our sector, and encourage you to invest in developing (and utilising!) your own networks.

3. What do tomorrow’s donors want and need?

This final point is a contentious one, for it could be argued that despite generations of education policy, market and regulatory changes, the fundamentals of fundraising have remained the same. This is a valuable point that certainly holds true, but I find it somewhat demotivating (not to mention complacent) to simply say that we shouldn’t all have one eye on the future when thinking about our strategy. After all, who knows whether it is thanks to the pro-active and unrecognised innovations of our predecessors that our sector has been able to overcome previous storms to ensure the preservation of the relationship-based fundraising model?

The strategy toolkit of any School and fundraiser should never be over-reliant on just one approach. I like to view my own toolkit as a series of levers to be dialled up or down depending on the questions I am seeking to answer at a given point in time. So whilst the publishing of any new benchmarking data should make everyone sit up and take note, make sure your School supports you in recognising that strategic plans should not start and end with benchmarking

Victoria McAlpine is Senior Consultant at Graham-Pelton. Click here for more insights about the IDPE and Graham-Pelton Benchmarking Survey results, and the way your organisation may benefit from our findings.

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