Benchmarking is somewhat like baking a cake.

OUTER LAYER (sweet, gooey icing of how all non-profits are performing)

The whole cake

The first step of any decent benchmarking effort is to measure how you’re doing against the sector.

In the case of digital, you’ll want to look at benchmarks for your email, website and social programs.  Here’s a list of the key places where you can find some of those metrics (mostly around email, some around web, not much around social).

It’s important to note that when you’re benchmarking against the  performance of the whole charitable sector, you should always be outperforming these measures. Why, you may ask? It’s because most of these reports (notably M+R and Luminate) tend to use data from large American charities with pretty large mailing lists. And by large here I mean 100,000+ names.

Most of the Canadian charities I’ve ever worked with are not even close to having email list list this size. They also tend not to be the largest Canadian charities.

That means for most of us working in small and medium sized organizations, we have smaller lists and generally hold much more personal and strong relationships with our donors and supporters.

That’s because we haven’t engaged in significant list building activities working with a bunch of prospects that we’re trying to convert to donors. The majority of us are also not engaging in online advocacy for which we need to mobilize a strong online base. We also have much tighter regulations around how we build our email lists with respect to privacy and spam laws.

If the open rate for the sector is 14% for fundraising emails, I’d actually expect that if we were to set Canadian benchmarks, we’ve find the open rate benchmark to be around 20%.

Which is why you need to also consider the layers that make up your cake…

CAKE LAYERS (the sectors within the charitable sector…your peers)

Cake layersOnce you know how you’re doing against the not-for-profit sector as a whole, dig a bit deeper and you can see how you’re doing again those in the same sector as you. I’m talking about your like-minded tribe of environmental or social services or faith-based or education or health or international charities.

Every sector has their own trends that you need to be aware of.

This is your single layer in a six or eight layer cake. It’s a pool of all similarly focused organizations.

For example, international organizations tend to attract much larger online one-time gifts ($207 is the average) while animal welfare organizations sit much lower (with an $70 average gift). These differences are more than nuances – these are key insights that should inform how you interpret your results.

The reports, notably M+R and Luminate, break results into sectors. But even better, create your own group of similar organizations and work together to build metrics to help you understand and asses your digital performance. The benefits of having a peer group of digital fundraisers extends way beyond benchmarking.

So now that you’ve looked at how your specific layer of cake is doing, and you know how that layer measures up to the whole cake, let’s look at your individual slice of cake. Because what’s truly most important of all is how your cause is doing over time.

SLICE OF CAKE (how your charity is performing against itself year over year)

Your slice of cakeThe best thing any digital fundraiser can do is to know your own results and then to develop strategies to improve those results. That’s why you need to establish your own internal benchmarks so that you can improve year after year (or quarter after quarter, month after month…) You get where I’m going with this.

If you’re not already doing better that non-profits as a whole, or your sector, then your first set of goals will be to get your results up to snuff.

But if you’re already doing better then the published benchmarks, have a little dance party in your office, and then dig in to how your digital program has been performing over time. It’s to no one’s benefit if you’re beating benchmarks, but you’re in the midst of a three year downward trend.

Your slice of cake is made up of the icing, the layers, and you. All of it’s important when you want to truly measure your digital performance. You always need to benchmark against yourself.


This article originally appeared on The Hilborn.