Creative Research Tools: The Wayback Machine

There comes a time when even the most sophisticated donor research tools don’t have all of the information you need, and you have to get a little creative to track down the information you want. That’s where the Wayback Machine comes in. An archive of old web pages (and old drafts of current web pages), the Wayback Machine is one of our Research Team’s favorite free-to-access tools.

How it works: Go to web.archive.org and enter the URL of the website you want to track. If previous drafts of the page have been archived, your search will yield a chronological list of drafts to choose from.

Alternatively, you can install the Wayback Machine Chrome browser extension on your browser, which will allow you to check for prior drafts of whatever page you are currently visiting, without having to go through the Wayback Machine website. Using the Chrome plugin, you can also contribute to the tool by archiving any site you visit.  All you do is click the Wayback Machine icon on your browser and select “Save Page Now.”

What to do with it: Donorly’s Senior Researcher has a few suggestions for ways to put this tool to use:

  1. Review old board lists. Do you have a tip that a donor may have served on a nonprofit’s or foundation’s board of directors in the past, but need to verify? Visit the Board of Directors page for that organization and use the Wayback Machine to check prior versions of that list. This is even more helpful for groups that don’t traditionally appear on 990s, such as staff and advisory committees.

  2. Check out archived documents. Looking at an organization that doesn’t keep links to old press releases and annual reports live on their website? You can find those links in older drafts of those respective web pages.

  3. Understand an organization’s or foundation’s evolution. Spending some time looking at an organization’s or foundation’s website can help you understand how their mission, giving levels, or funding priorities have changed over time. The Wayback Machine’s timeline feature can also help you get a sense of when those changes were implemented.

Beyond being useful for your donor research, this tool has the potential to be endlessly entertaining, especially when you’re examining early drafts of websites that were originally published in the late 90s and early 00s—try it out on facebook.com or your alma mater’s website, for instance, for a blast from the past!