One of the first understandings an institution claims I need to have about them involves their uniqueness. It goes something like this:
“Jason, we know you work with institutions and organizations across the country. But we are different here. Our institutional culture is different. This community is different. Our views on philanthropy are different. We are unique.”
Everyone – from the smallest non-profits, to the most complex educational systems- makes a similar claim. Fair enough. In many (but not all) respects, the claim is a valid one. They are correct. People and places are different!
So, here’s a question: If every institution has meaningful differences as compared to all others, why do we spend so much energy, time, and money attempting to benchmark our progress and outcomes in comparison to others?
We go through the hassles of finding “like” institutions. We come up with metrics which we deem are the most meaningful expressions of our work. We compare ourselves to other institutions. We pat ourselves on the back when we are “best in class” in some benchmarked category. And we craft strategic plans which aim to achieve “above average” status in those categories in which we don’t fare as well.
In fact, whole sectors of the non-profit world, most notably our friends in the healthcare industry, are benchmarking everything they can!
But let’s go back to this uniqueness concept. If we truly believed in our institution’s uniqueness, instead of benchmarking and comparing ourselves to others, we would be spending our time, energy, and money developing super effective, customized advancement solutions for our settings. We wouldn’t compare outcomes with other institutions, we would compare our outcomes against our history and our goals. We wouldn’t ask, “how are ‘they’ doing?” We’d ask, “what do we need to achieve? What are our goals and how close are we to achieving them?”
I believe in the uniqueness of every institution. Institutional leaders claim to believe it. I just can’t figure out why they don’t act like it.