Nonprofit Benchmarking: Why You Need People Who Are Better Than You

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Critical questions for those who would excel at their profession: Who is better than you at what you do? 
Who is better than you at part of what you do? 
Most of us aim to say we’re more than passably good at our profession or craft. It can seem counter-intuitive to actively seek out those who can out perform, out sell, and out communicate us. But the hard truth is that if we truly want to improve, it’s critical to seek out, observe, and, to a degree, imitate  top-performers in our field, and across industries.
For example, maybe you are the absolute top tier member of a teaching faculty. Nobody can get close to your results with kids; you’re what we might call “best in class” (no pun intended). But let’s say that there’s another educator, maybe of a different subject or in a different grade level or at a junior college (and you’re at a “prestigious” university), who has a more efficient lesson planning process, or who makes stronger use of wikis and other technology platforms in the classroom, or who has mastered how best to conduct training of other teachers in their department. No matter how good you are, there’s no doubt you’ll be better if you take a cue from this other high performing individual. And isn’t that what we all really want? If we’re serious about being the best?
By recognizing, understanding, and adapting the outstanding practices of others in your field, or of one who performs processes similar to yours in a totally different industry, craft, or profession, you will improve your own performance.
We call it benchmarking. While it’s fairly common to find benchmarking in for-profit organizations, it is rare in the non-profit sector, but no less critical.
Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery
Benchmarking is more than just imitating high performers, or borrowing great ideas from a competitor or similar agency and applying them in our own settings. When we benchmark, we start by looking deep within our own organization to figure out what our problems areas really are, and what we most need to improve so that we can better accomplish our mission and achieve our vision. Our growth comes out of understanding our weaknesses.
So, the great idea that a similar organization is doing down the road might not work at all in our setting, or with the same “splash” because it’s not really a tactic that helps us improve an area of actual weakness.
Usually, in a PR context we uncover an organization’s problem areas through the formal process of the communications audit. By selecting the right qualitative and quantitative tools, we collect a range of data that helps us identify performance that needs work, and  is not just limited to communications.
Once we know what needs work, we identify other industries with similar processes, and those organizations that are leaders in these areas (and these may or may not be in our field) and start to learn from them (from surveys, via consultants, or by making visits to best practice companies). After all of this, then we can consider imitation, or better said implementation of new and improved processes in our own setting.
This really does matter. Here’s why:
Currently, I am working with a client that is firmly convinced that adding new communications roles to the organization will solve an incredible laundry list of organizational weaknesses, drastically reduce looming threats, and blow the lid off of potential opportunities. 
As an advocate for the leading role of communications and PR at the top level of any organization, I am glad this organization wants to add a senior level position that will focus on communications to their structure.
But.
The truth is that most PR and communications issues are tied to deeper systemic issues within an organization: how they conduct employee relations, what the senior leaders push as the mission and vision and what is written on paper, how effectively the organization writes and implements realistic strategic plans, etc. And to truly solve these issues requires much more than “just” a PR strategy. Solving these issues, and writing an effective PR strategy in that process, requires the organization be open to self-evaluation and improvement, and benchmarking is a critical step in arriving at this state.
I am an advocate of taking time to really dig deep into an organization to unearth what’s working well, what’s not, where are the potential problems in the short and long term, and what critical opportunities are we missing. When we dig deep and discover what we can celebrate and what we wish nobody would know about our internal operations, we have a real chance to become best in class.
Benchmarking plays a critical role in this exploration because it gives us the hopeful note in answer to our weaknesses. It helps us understand what’s working well in other settings, and how we might use our own unique strengths and specific opportunities to do it even better.
So this week – take inventory of your internal strengths and weaknesses. Be gut-wrenchingly honest. And then start to explore those entities, businesses, or agencies who seem to do what you aren’t too good at very, very well. And then, get in touch, ask great questions and prepare to be thoroughly excited by the possibilities that await.
Recommended Reading:
Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant
And check out Wild Apricot’s nonprofit technology blog for a great read on 2010 Performance Benchmarks for Nonprofits, including links to several key 2010 studies (Nonprofit Text Messaging Benchmarks Study and the 2010 Nonprofit Social Media Benchmarks Study, and others)

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