Donors and other stakeholders continue to look for more accountability and transparency from nonprofits, especially regarding fundraising. Not only is the sum of money raised in campaigns meaningful, but how efficiently you’re able to raise it, too.

Interested parties look beyond total dollars raised to also consider associated costs in fundraising efforts. Cost ratios that present fundraising costs as a percentage of funds raised (also known as cost-per-dollar) focus on the expense of fundraising, while return on investment (ROI), importantly, focuses on the returns. It makes sense to track both.

Determining ROI vs. Cost Ratios

The formula for ROI uses the same inputs as the cost ratio but flips them:

ROI = Fundraising revenue / Investment in fundraising (Fundraising expense)

Focusing not only on the big picture but on specific fundraising activities will allow your organization to identify its weaker methods and strategies and improve its overall fundraising performance. Which of your fundraising activities generates the highest return? Once you establish a baseline, you can see where your results are improving and which programs are most effective.

Some organizations feel it’s more meaningful to measure gross revenues raised compared to the fundraising expenses for that effort. However, many follow a more traditional method of measuring ROI using net revenues (revenues minus the related expenses) when comparing to costs. Either way is OK, but you must be consistent by measuring your revenues in the same way for each year and campaign. And remember, these metrics are only meaningful when you compare fundraising activities or trends from one year to prior years.

Calculating the Inputs

There are other considerations. How, for instance, do you compute your “fundraising expense”? Although the revenue information is easily available to your development staff, your accounting staff should be recruited to gather data on expenses at the same level of detail by campaign or fundraising effort.

Your fundraising expense should include the direct costs of the initial effort, as well as later efforts. Initial costs might include the investment to create a new donor relationship (for example, online advertising costs or the costs of a phone campaign), while subsequent costs include those associated with maintaining that relationship (for instance, the costs of a renewal mailing).

What about indirect or overhead costs? Be consistent! If you exclude those that you would incur with or without the monitored activity, such as the costs for your website or donor database, make sure they are excluded from every campaign metric. For both costs and revenues, you should use rolling averages that cover three to five years. This will reduce the effect of “one-offs,” whether in the form of a significant donation or an economic downturn. You’ll also avoid penalizing fundraising activities, such as a major gift campaign, that require some time to show results.

Calculating these metrics will help you make better decisions when it comes to allocating your fundraising resources. But keep in mind that ROIs can vary greatly by activity, and a lower ROI doesn’t necessarily mean you should cut the activity. One fundraising expert suggests striking a balance between high-cost, high-potential long-term activities and low-cost, short-term activities.

A Win-Win Scenario

Going to the effort of computing the cost ratios and ROIs is a win-win. With this information in hand, you can make more informed decisions and satisfy your stakeholders. Your CPA can help you in these efforts.