How to use benchmarking to inform – not instruct – your strategy

Benchmarking surveys and reports provide a great overview of the average fundraising health of a given sector.

Recently, one such survey, the Ross-CASE 2018 Report, was released, providing a bird’s-eye view of the higher education landscape within the UK. It’s natural to reach for these benchmarking reports when institutions want to assess their own performance, but it can be overwhelming trying to make sense of the data in a way that helps you understand just how your institution measures up.

Here’s where to start.

Look at the trends in giving and compare them to your own institution. For example, look at:

  • levels of individual versus organisational donors;
  • non-alumni versus alumni giving;
  • the breakdown of organisation donor sources.

Review average investment (staff and non-staff costs) and average staff levels compared with income raised. This gives you a very general view of where others are and will form the base case for further investment.

Consider impact of elements such as mission group or alumni magazine on engagement and income levels.

CASE has identified six clusters (Fragile, Emerging, Developing, Moderate, Established, Elite) which organize universities into peer groups based on their fundraising ROI. Use this insightful element of the report to evaluate the factors above against:

  • your own cluster;
  • the cluster above, to identify how to progress;
  • the cluster below, to identify how to avoid a drop.

Right or Wrong? It’s all relative.

While benchmarking reports such as Ross-CASE are helpful, there are several things to keep in mind when you discuss findings with your institution’s leadership. Before you go into a meeting to talk findings, results, and strategy, be sure to have a strong handle on these three things:

Know your institution’s strengths and weaknesses.

Remember that every institution is different. Each has its own set of challenges and strengths that impact on how it splits resources, operations, and budget. Objectively understand yours and be prepared to articulate the impact they have on your productivity and success.

Know your pipeline.

The nature of fundraising is that there is an element of unpredictability to it. CASE clearly states data can easily be skewed by a one-off massive gift coming in one year which won’t happen the next. Know your own pipelines and cultivation plans well so that you can present as accurate a picture as possible.

Know your donors, volunteers, and stakeholders.

The inclusion of the spend on alumni magazines has provided some interesting comparisons, but let this and average non-staff costs be a guidance, not an instruction, on what you should do. Do what’s right for your constituents. Make sure your events and communications have strategic purpose. If you’re not sure, take stock and evaluate them to make sure they are contributing to achieving key goals in your strategy.

In the end, there are many elements that contribute to successful fundraising, and these can’t all be easily understood from benchmarking. Consider what else might be impacting your success and where you might need to make changes, raise issues, or highlight your strengths. For example:

  • Have you got the right case for support in place?
  • Are leadership giving enough time to cultivate top prospects?
  • Do you have the operational resource to support frontline fundraising and alumni relations?

Remember that benchmarking analysis should only be one tool of many when it comes to informing leadership, seeking investment, and setting goals. Use it to inform – not instruct – your strategy and target setting.

Above all, if there are changes that need to be made, be realistic about how you are going to tackle them and how long they will take to implement. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was a fantastic development office.

For more expert analysis of the Ross-CASE 2018 findings, see our highlights and insights.

Need help assessing your performance? Contact us to learn how we can help.


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