Who, what, where, when and why are questions to ask with any type of information gathering task – writing a news story, researching an issue, or conducting a communications audit. It’s an effective way to get a better understanding of any subject.

For anyone who has put off conducting a communications audit for your nonprofit organization, asking yourself these basic questions can make the process go more easily than you expect. However, none of these questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. They require thoughtful reflection and analysis, something that is critical to an effective audit.

There are different ways of doing internal audits, but asking yourself these five questions is a good approach and well worth your investment of time.

Conduct a nonprofit communications audit by asking these questions

Why bother?

A communications audit is a look at an organization’s communications tactics to determine if these efforts are still relevant, effective and aligned with the needs of your organization and stakeholders. The audit should focus on the communication messages and the channels that deliver them. Ultimately, an audit will help your organization determine if your communications pieces are working, and if not, how they might work better.

When to start?

An annual or biennial audit of your communications efforts is a good idea. If that sounds too ambitious, plan to do a communications audit every 3-5 years, to coincide with the release of your organization’s new strategic plan.

At its core, a communications audit is a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis of your public relations and marketing programs. It catalogs every piece of content you produce and the channels through which they are distributed.

Where to look?

Your communications audit should look at every piece of content your organization produces – both print and digital. Make sure you include everything: donor thank you letters, online messages generated from your organization’s website, voicemail message on your organization’s main telephone line, and staff email signatures.

In your audit, document every communications item in a chart and provide as much detail about the item as possible.

nonprofit communications audit table

You should also note any items that have considerable staff time devoted to their development (that is a cost after all) or any items that generate revenue, which offsets costs such as direct mail appeal or newsletters.

Who needs to be involved?

Once you have documented your communication items, put together a small team of individuals to help you review samples of your organization’s work. The team could include colleagues, volunteers, donors or clients served by your organization. Your audit team is here to help you assess the effectiveness of your materials and whether your messages are clear, relevant, and have strong calls to action.

To glean information from this group consider one or more of the following options:

  • Develop a multiple choice questionnaire or checklist for the individual to use as they are reviewing each item.
  • Conduct one-on-one interviews with each individual to get their feedback on the materials
  • Facilitate a focus group with everyone on your audit team to foster open discussion and commentary about your communications mix

Once the audit team has completed the review, you should work with them to collectively create a report that documents their analysis and any proposed recommendations.

What’s next?

After the work of your audit team is complete, you should have answers to some important questions including which items are working and which are not. It may be daunting, however, to determine your next steps.

To help you incorporate the recommendations of the audit into your communications plan, consider using a decision matrix. A decision matrix is a visual tool that enables you to plot your activities and help you see

Below is an example of a matrix you can use for your communication activities that evaluates items based on their importance to the organization and their effectiveness with the audience. Simply determine which quadrant each item belongs in to map your next steps.

Communications Matrix

Items in the box “Not that Effective but Highly Important” should be given high priority and deserve your immediate attention. The goal, of course, is to have as many items as possible move to the “Highly Effective and Highly Important” box and remain there. Moving forward that will mean incorporating ongoing evaluation tools into your communication pieces to track their effectiveness. This tracking will also help make your next audit a much easier process.

What has worked for you? What steps do you include when conducting a communications audit?

Suzanne Hallsworth

Suzanne Hallsworth

VP, Development & Communications at Oakville Hospital Foundation
Suzanne Hallsworth is the VP, Development & Communications for the Oakville Hospital Foundation. In her role, she leads the annual giving, community fundraising, and special events teams and develops marketing communication strategies to help the Foundation reach its fundraising goals. Suzanne has been working in the nonprofit sector for more than a decade following an earlier career in the book publishing industry.
Suzanne Hallsworth