Benchmarking and Goal Setting – Is Second Best, Best?

Published by Karen Osborne on

My friend Marianne accused me of living in “Karen Land,” a place where everything is perfect and there are no obstructions to success.  “The rest of us,” she said, “live in reality.”  She’s right.  When I speak at conferences and workshops, I paint a picture of what perfect might look like, what an exceptional stewardship, or major gift, or alumni relations program should/could achieve.  I ask my audience to visit “Karen Land” as a way to set aspirational goals, as a vehicle for being ambitious for our missions.

Recently, however, I read an article that said “sometimes, second-best makes a better role model.” Two researchers at the University of Warwick in Britain found that looking at “the best of the best, rather than being inspirational, it might just be depressing.

This got me thinking.

bstbstWhen organizations benchmark, for example, how well their annual giving program stacks up against peer institutions, invariably they include “aspirational peers” in the mix.  Or our CEO’s ask, “Who is excellent at this?  What are they doing?  How do we compare?”  Instead, should we examine the successes of organizations just one or two steps ahead of us?

When we are goal setting, should we base our goals on current circumstances or aspirations or need no matter what reality dictates?

Here’s what I think.

First, take the long-view. 

In fund development and institutional advancement, we can accomplish almost anything in three-years with a solid plan, professional will, persistence and courage.

Imagine it is three-years from now.  What would perfect look like?  Describe it in detail.  This is the “Karen Land” part.  Who are the people on the team and what are they doing with what results?  What is the required budget?  Who are your external partners?

Next, list all of the benefits to the organization, the people you serve, the team with which you work.  What impact will your “best” achieve?  Don’t negotiate against yourself.  “We could never accomplish that.” “No one will give us the budget.”  Dream big, in color.  Write it all down.

Now, here comes reality.

Assess where you are now.  What does your current state consist of?  If you’re building a great stewardship program, focus on retention rates for new donors, donors giving between two and five years, and loyal supporters giving for five or more years.  Look at your upgrade rates.  Donor satisfaction?  Are 100% of your supporters receiving impact reports beyond thank you notes?  Are you connecting your top 60% directly to the impact their investments are having on your mission, vision and work?

If you’re building a major gift program, how many prospective donors have you identified and is that number enough? Are your giving and naming opportunities compelling?  What are your “yes” rates?  How many of the solicitations made received joyful, generous “yeses” in response? How close to the amount requested?

Benchmarking against the best and second-best

You’re ready for a bit of inspiration, aspiration and reality mixed together.  Look at both the very best and those who are only one of two steps ahead of you.  How does your three-year vision stack up against those organizations’ current realities?  How does your current state stack-up against their current states?  How wide are the gaps?  In which areas are you close and you could close the gap over the course of the next three years?  What strategies are your benchmark organizations using that might make sense for you?  What are you already doing that you could enhance with big effect? Organize your ideas.


With this information and analysis in hand, you can set your one, two and three-year goals and strategies.  Build a path to the future your organization needs and deserves based on reality but also being the best you can you be.

One last thought about goal setting and being ambitious for your mission.  A goal without a plan is a pipedream.  You need a concrete road map for achieving your vision for the future of your program.

Karen Osborne

Internationally recognized as an expert consultant and excellent presenter, Karen receives invitations from all over the United States and the world to make presentations and consult with NGOs, universities, justice, social service, and health organizations. The Council for Support and Advancement of Education (CASE) awarded Karen the Crystal Apple for outstanding teaching and Ashmore Award for Outstanding Service to the Profession. Published and often quoted in industry books, newspapers and magazines, Karen serves on the board of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and teaches a graduate course on philanthropy for Johns Hopkins University.


ted sudol · August 20, 2013 at 07:53

Karen, interesting thoughts, indeed. You know, can’t help but think of Avis and its clever positioning strategy…. publicly putting out there that being 2nd is not a bad place to be, especially being 2nd and trying harder…. when it abandoned this strategy in favor of a head-on assault on #1, it actually backfired and it ended up not even #2….. Ditto for Buffett’s GEICO strategy – goal hasn’t been to become #1, just close enough to be really successful…. a strategy that may be not work so well in Major League Baseball, but it just might be pretty sound a plan within philanthropy…..

Maarten de Vries · August 22, 2013 at 12:21

Er is jaren geleden al onderzoek gedaan naar dit fenomeen o.a. tussen Cocacola en Pepsicola. Leiderschap kost veel geld en inspanning dat menigmaal ten koste gaat van doeltreffendheid en doelmatigheid.
De recente besluiten van chefkoks om hun Michelinsterren terug te geven is een vergelijkbare reactie.
Bestuursleden van non profitorganisaties zouden ook om deze redenen zeer kritisch moeten zijn ten aanzien van de salariering van de directeuren. Veel directeuren menen dat zij het salaris verdienen vanwege het feit dat zij leiding geven aan een top organisatie. Nadere berschouwing op dit essentiele punt leert vaak dat zij ondermaats presteren.

[Headlines] Don’t Quit Yet! | · August 27, 2013 at 16:02

[…] Benchmarking and Goal Setting – Is Second Best, Best? CEO’s ask, “Who is excellent at this?  What are they doing?  How do we compare?”  Instead, should we examine the successes of organizations just one or two steps ahead of us? By Karen Osborne […]

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