Communications audits: How effectively are you communicating?

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How many of us look at the dashboards in our cars? A dashboard keeps track of things like oil and fuel levels, temperature and mileage and provides us with helpful information to take action based on the indicators.

Just like a dashboard in our cars, a communications audit is a way to monitor and evaluate communications and marketing efforts - in this case, in our organizations - to gauge effectiveness. We can then make adjustments and revisions, according to what the indicators tell us.

With this in mind, let’s delve a little further into the world of communications audits.

What is a communications audit?

While a car dashboard shows how well your vehicle is operating, a communications audit is an indicator, at a given time, of an organization’s current communications practices and how effective they are. An audit can cover internal or external communications or both, depending on the objectives and outcomes desired (more on this later).

More specifically, an audit can pinpoint problem areas such as frequent misunderstandings, information blocks, information gaps, information duplication or misrepresentation.

Why should you consider conducting an audit?

Increasingly, nonprofits, charitable and voluntary sector organizations need to demonstrate accountability, strategic thinking and planning.

It’s no longer sufficient to assume what you’re doing is working or that ‘we’ve always done it this way’ and things are fine, thank you very much.

Effective marketing communications efforts help build profile and raise awareness about your organization. Doing these things well can directly impact your fundraising activities and help your success rate.

Accountability and results-oriented outcomes are part of business and strategic plans; so too, they must be part of marketing communications plans. How do you know that your marketing communications plan is working? An audit highlights current practices and possible missing elements from a strategic point of view. For example, in your communications with donors, you might produce a newsletter and host a donor recognition event. But, during interviews and focus group discussions, you might get feedback indicating donors would be interested in receiving an annual report or being able to sign up for an RSS (really simple syndication) news feed to your website. The audit helps to pinpoint these elements; it’s up to you to decide which ones will be most effective in helping to achieve your goals and objectives.

Here are some questions to help you focus your thinking:

  1. How can our communications vehicles be more integrated and focused on our objectives, including fundraising objectives?
  2. How can we rework communications vehicles to help the organization face increasing competition and improve customer service or raise more money?
  3. How can we know if communications vehicles are effective?
  4. How can we prove to the board or senior management that what we're doing with communications makes a difference?

Who should conduct an audit?

One option is the communications or public relations sub-committee of your board or, if you have one, a staff person with responsibility for PR or communications.

Organizations often look outside for this kind of expertise. Why? An outside consultant with experience in strategic communications can bring a fresh perspective, critical eye and a curiosity about your organization.

Whichever option you decide on, remember: You’re looking for an impartial observer, someone to ask lots of questions of you, your staff, board members, volunteers and other key publics and audiences (internal and external). You also want someone who will comprehensively review all your communications and marketing materials - print and electronic - to gather a holistic view of your organization’s current communications practices.

What’s in an audit?

This is a comprehensive list, but you may have other items to include:

  • newsletters
  • magazines
  • websites and internal Intranets
  • audio and video programming and packages
  • face-to-face programs, eg. staff meetings/forums, external speaking engagements, speakers’ bureaus
  • e-mail messages, memos, speeches
  • letters, e.g. Thank you letters to sponsors and donors
  • blogs
  • media releases, media kits
  • media list (list of actual media outlets the organization has in a database)
  • annual report
  • Objectives and outcomes

    It’s critical to first determine what you want to achieve with a communications audit and what results you want.

    Here are a few objectives for consideration:

  • Determining the effectiveness of communication processes
  • Determining relevance and usefulness of various communication topics and vehicles
  • Assessing whether audiences have received key messages
  • Determining what communication key audiences (eg. donors, volunteers, sponsors, etc.) need but are not getting
  • Developing an ongoing process for measuring the effectiveness of communication
  • Developing a strategic communications plan (covers both internal and external communications)
  • Possible outcomes:

  • How well the organization communicates internally and externally
  • How disadvantages can be changed to strengths
  • Which message types or content work
  • What vehicles really work to convey these messages 
  • Concerns of certain audiences that might not have been on the internal radar screen
  • How to conduct an audit

    I would strongly recommend using a combination of informal and formal methods, including:

  • Analysis/critical examination of existing communication vehicles - covering everything internally and externally listed under ‘What’s in an audit?’ (or one or the other if the focus is narrowed)
  • Qualitative research (interviews, observations, focus groups)
  • Quantitative research (surveys, either online, telephone or mail)
  • Report and action planning
  • As part of your initial planning, consider how you’re going to analyze audit results and what will be done with them. Whose responsibility will it be to follow up? How can things be modified or improved on to achieve communications objectives that support the organization’s overall goals and objectives? 


    Effective communications affects all aspects of your organization’s operations - the ability to raise funds, build awareness and attract and retain staff and volunteers. Consider it an investment in your future success.

    Susan Scott, ABC, is owner of Full Circle Communications, a strategic communications consulting firm. She is an Accredited Business Communicator (ABC) with the International Association of Business Communicators. Susan has worked and volunteered her time in the nonprofit and charitable sectors. She can be reached at:

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