Caron Bradshaw: That pressure to benchmark can be turned in your favour

Her daughter's successful driving test got our columnist thinking about benchmarking

Caron Bradshaw
Caron Bradshaw

My eldest recently passed her driving test. Pride and glee soon gave way to hours of searching on comparison sites for an insurance policy that wouldn't require a second mortgage.

This got me thinking about benchmarking. The sector is continuously being asked to compare everything. The focus is not always on the most helpful or positive metrics, but we're under the microscope. League tables or pitching one charity's approach and set-up against another's can be a crude and imprecise proxy for what makes a good charity – but the pressure is nonetheless there.

We should turn this pressure to our advantage. Comparing the wrong things might incentivise inappropriate behaviour, but identifying areas where you can test your approach against your peers can be a positive way to improve performance.

The consultancy Accenture says benchmarking can provide "concrete baseline and comparative data you need to identify performance gaps and ways to bridge them". Carla O'Dell, chief executive of the non-profit American Productivity and Quality Centre, calls it "the practice of being humble enough to admit that someone else is better at something and being wise enough to learn how to match and even surpass them at it".

Unlike my daughter's insurance, then, this isn't all about driving down cost; it's more about performance and effectiveness. Striking a balance is essential. We don't want to be so efficient that we lose our purpose. Conversely, we shouldn't hide behind delivering social change as an excuse for not trying to get more from our resources. If we own the transparency and efficiency agenda, we can avoid the finger-pointing and drive change.

I came across an interesting article by three French doctors on the role of benchmarking in the continuous improvement of healthcare provision. There were some interesting crossovers for us: the need to structure the management of risk and quality of provision, the necessity to control costs and the imperative to satisfy the needs of patients – or, in our case, beneficiaries. They argued that benchmarking could be more than a simple yardstick for efficiency; it could, they said, promote discussions among colleagues on their practices, to stimulate cultural and organisational change. This last point resonates with me because the CFG has recently relaunched its benchmarking tool, Finance Count, which offers opportunities to explore organisational change beyond responding to the pure data.

The economic imperatives of the last few years might make you think that any low-hanging fruit will already have been picked in benchmarking terms. But, to mix my metaphors, the reality might be that when we're busy keeping the car on the road we don't always find time to review critical, but perhaps more functional, elements of what we do – so we miss opportunities to deliver our mission more effectively.

John Reh, a leadership and management expert, once said: "If you don't benchmark, and then implement improvements based on it, you will find yourself out of business. You'll have plenty of time to benchmark, but it won't matter."

I wouldn't go that far, but I'd certainly encourage you to know your business and seek ways to improve continuously.

Benchmarking isn't a single solution, but it can offer you a tool to help you serve your beneficiaries more effectively – and, if done right, it can help charities to regain the initiative on transparency and efficiency.

Caron Bradshaw is chief executive of the Charity Finance Group

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