Benchmarks and Big Data

Benchmarking is the practice of comparing performance to similar programs or organizations to determine where you are excelling and where there may be room for improvement.

Using Benchmarks to Find Meaning in Your Data

You can use benchmarks to help you understand how you stack up against other organizations doing similar work. For example, M+R releases an annual report on how nonprofits are doing in online fundraising, advocacy and organizing. You can look at your own communication metrics to understand how you are doing compared to your peers.

If there is no benchmark data available externally, you can also benchmark internally by setting goals, tracking metrics and reviewing them over time.

Using Big Data to Find Meaning in Your Small Data

Most of us work with small or medium data. But the good news is that we can harness the power of big data to help us find meaning in the data we have, no matter the size.

Let's take a common strategic question as an example: Am I effectively engaging my constituents with my email communication?

Your purpose is to better understand how you can adapt your communication strategy to meet the needs of your constituents.

You collect some data and find some high-level patterns:

  • Email open and click-through rates have steadily declined over the last 6 months
  • The majority of your emails are sent around 9 AM Eastern Time
  • The majority of your readers use their smartphone to read your emails (you know this from a recent constituent survey)

If you look at analysis of big data on email reading behavior, you will notice that there is a significant peak in reading email on smartphones around 6 AM. You may need to consider changing when you send out your emails.


Of course, you may try out this new strategy and find no change in your email rates. In this case, maybe the decline is about content, look or uninspiring subject lines. The bottom line is that you can harness the power of existing big data to find meaning in your small data and to inform your decisions.

Chances are that your constituents are very similar in behavior to the general population—and you can take advantage of this in many ways by tapping into research that applies to your focal area. For example, a national study of teens’ social media activity could easily help you better understand and reach the small group of teens you serve.

Where does all of this big data live, and how can you find it? There are many public data sets available from international organizations like the World Bank and USAID, as well as U.S. government agencies like the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Googling the type of data you need, like “data on high school dropout rates” will usually unearth at least one publicly available data set. For more on finding publicly available data, see our section on open data.