How to avoid the common pitfalls of charity benchmarking

Jon Kelly – Director of Analysis @ Wood for Trees

In 12 years, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked how somebody’s lifetime value or retention rates compare to the rest of the sector. Benchmarking! Everybody wants it, but at the same time, people can be (rightly) wary of it and what it can lead to.

These concerns boil down to a few distinct factors:

Comparability – How can we be sure that our data is comparable to the benchmark?

Apples with apples or apples with pears? Any charity analyst will know that ensuring consistency of definition is difficult within an organisation, so how do you achieve this across a number of different organisations, each with their own processing methodologies and definitions? How do we define an active donor? What is meant by cash gift?

Accuracy – How reliable is the data being benchmarked?

Most sector benchmark projects rely on surveys and self-reported data. Whilst I am in no way suggesting that the information provided in these is falsified, they are certainly open to interpretation (thus exacerbating the problems of comparability) and may not even be consistent over time, as different people may use different information to complete them.

Timeliness – How up to date is the data I’m benchmarking against?

Real-time may be a bit of a push, but a key drawback of survey driven benchmarks is the amount time it takes to gather and compile the information, let alone collate and gather it into the benchmark. By which time the information gleaned from it may no longer be relevant.

Context – Is this data even relevant to me?

Even if you manage to overcome the above, the issue of context remains. Just because somebody else is receiving average gifts of £50 does it mean that we should. The audience, offer and cause will all be factors in this, as will the rest of the programme and overall supporter engagement, to name but a few.

Get any of these wrong, and you risk drawing the wrong conclusions from the information you’re evaluating. These conclusions could ultimately lead to misjudged opportunities, bad investments and the setting of unattainable targets.

But if you can overcome the first two issues, improve the third and be aware and cognisant of the fourth, then it is clear that having information on what other charities are achieving can be helpful in evaluating and planning your programmes. And, of course, support you in explaining your results to your boards and trustees.

Up to now, Wood for Trees have helped and supported these questions by anecdotally relaying results and performance from the multitude of analytical projects we’ve conducted (all with full anonymity of course). However, InsightHub Benchmarking finally enables us to give everybody access to this knowledge in a far more comprehensive, consistent and speedy manner (not to mention beautiful – take a look at those dashboards). Caution: you may still need to apply your experience and knowledge to reconcile the context and gain meaningful insight – we can’t do everything! But of course, we can help there too . . .

Using the Wood for Trees Core Charity Model, we gather your data directly from your CRM, categorise, consolidate and aggregate in a consistent manner, and then deliver these straight back to your desktop via our online portal.

Please get in touch if you would like to find out more about using Wood for Trees benchmarks to accelerate your success.