Annual report writing season is here.
For many nonprofits, this time of the year can be daunting. It happens all too often: A non-profit produces an annual report that is dry, crowded with needless financial data, and, sadly, destined for someone’s trash bin.
But it does not and should not be this way.
An annual report represents a golden opportunity to communicate directly with donors. It should tell the story of your organization and its people in a compelling way. It should bring your organization’s accomplishments to life. And, ultimately, it should inspire future support from donors, who are, in turn, reassured that their philanthropy is making a meaningful difference in the world—and who may even share the report with relatives, friends, and other prospective donors.
Here’s the bottom line: Do not let your nonprofit’s annual report paint a stale, uninspiring portrait of your nonprofit’s hard work.
Follow these 10 steps to create a nonprofit report that sends a powerful message to donors, volunteers, and supporters.
Before you start writing your report, outline the programs, performance measures, and financials that you want to include. Gather the hard numbers and data that demonstrate the success of your projects. Gather first-hand testimonials from volunteers or individuals whose lives are (or have been) touched by your work—as well as relevant photos or videos. (A combination of quantitative data with personal accounts will bring insight and depth to your annual report.)
If you are missing information, now is the time to reach out to volunteers or coworkers to collect the data that you need.
Use relevant statistics to quantify accomplishments. How many people has your nonprofit helped? How many hours have volunteers contributed? Donors want to know the scope of your impact, whether your mission is environmental protection, improving literacy, or expanding global health.
Statistics are only as effective as the manner in which they are presented. Don’t drown donors in complicated spreadsheets, financials, and charts. Instead, create arresting charts and infographics that tell your story by making complicated data easy to understand. Include photos to give your volunteers and accomplishments a clear identity.
For example, Room to Read’s annual report
presents the most important statistics, such as the number of libraries built, in conjunction with full-page images of the children who use these libraries. This humanizes the statistics, visually underscoring these important accomplishments.
Data will give your donors an overview of the big picture. Balance this information by presenting personal stories from the people you help or the volunteers that support your mission.
For example, the Washington, D.C.-based global health nonprofit PATH featured several of its major initiatives in its annual report. These initiatives include the Prevention of Postpartum Hemorrhage Initiative (POPPHI), which is a partnership between PATH and USAID. The initiative’s name is a mouthful, and the public health issues involved are complex. PATH included photos of women that the initiative had helped, along with an embedded video showing how POPPHI is saving the lives of young mothers in developing nations.
By personalizing complex global health issues, PATH helps donors and supporters better relate to the nonprofit’s work. In 2011, PATH’s 2009 annual report
won the Magnus Opus Gold Award
for Best Overall Editorial Content in the Print Annual Report category.
Show them the money.
Including financials is optional. For most nonprofits, a pie chart and a few bulleted paragraphs makes more sense than pages of financial data. If a chart tracking your capital fundraising campaign and the programs that your fundraising supported helps to tell your story, then by all means include it. Just be sure to boil down the financial data to the most relevant information.
Most donors won’t read—and may not even care about—your complex financial statements. Include these at the back of the report or publish them separately.
Check your lists.
Most annual reports include lists of board members, executive staff, and donors. Depending on the length of your report and number of donors, you may need to set a minimum donation amount to be included in the report. This amount minimum must be clearly stated to supporters at the time of their donation. You do not want to offend donors by leaving them out of the report.
Likewise, triple check the list of donors that you do include. Omissions, typos, and spelling errors are embarrassing and may cost you support.
In today’s digital age, your annual report must be available both in a print version and as a searchable PDF or eBook. The digital version should be a manageable file size that is emailed to donors and also available as a download from your website. A digital version is easy to flip through on a computer, iPad, or smartphone.
When donors are finished reading your report, they should be able to share your report with others via email. This increases the likelihood that donors will actually read your report and that donors will share your report with others. A searchable PDF or eBook also makes it easy for donors and media contacts to quickly find needed information.
Tools such as Isuu
, and Zmags
can “dress up” the online version of your report, adding flash, audio, and video content. For example, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Global Development used Isuu to create the online version of its annual report
, which donors can flip through on their iPads or computers as if they were reading a hard copy.
Create a purpose-driven layout.
Your annual report’s visual layout affects the manner in which donors read and process information. Your stories, data, and financials are only as effective as your report’s layout. Successful layouts will balance text-heavy paragraphs with large pull quotes and feature photos. If you are discussing several different core projects, repeat the same layout pattern for visual consistency.
For example, the Nature Conservancy’s annual report
seamlessly balances powerful visuals with data, using pull quotes, easy-to-read statistics, and personal anecdotes to convey the programs’ accomplishments. Each feature story follows a similar layout pattern (image – text – statistics – pull quote – image). This creates visual symmetry and a compelling report that donors will actually want to read.
Edit for comprehension and message.
An annual report covers a lot of information. But it must tie together, sort of like a plot in a novel. That means some data or stories simply won’t make the final cut. When editing your report, ask: “Does this information tell a compelling story or quantify our accomplishments?”
Keep things simple. For example, choose one powerful visual instead of five competing images. Include links to your website for further information, video interviews, or additional photos.
End with a call to action.
Don’t leave your donors hanging. Now that you’ve inspired them with your good work, tell them how they can continue to be involved. Bullet your list of suggestions to avoid any confusion. This will help ensure that your donors continue to be engaged.
Your annual report is an opportunity to deepen your relationship with donors
. Integrating achievements, statistics, and stories with an easy-to-read layout will ensure that your report connects with both your donors’ heads and hearts. You work hard to attract your donors. When done correctly, your annual report will keep them donating—and also inspire new donors to support your cause.
Shrita D. Sterlin is the chief executive and brand officer of Penn Strategies, a full-service communications firm that specializes in branding, public relations and marketing campaigns. Penn Strategies is headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland. Follow Shrita Sterlin on Twitter @ShritaSterlin.