Supporters expect that you’ll use their donation to get results, create the kind of world they want to live in, and make an impact they couldn’t achieve on their own as one individual.
Your annual report is where you show that you’ve met those expectations. It’s where you prove you were worthy of their donation and their trust.
So with those goals in mind, which of these best describes your annual report?
Option 1: It starts with a boring letter from the Executive Director and, if you draw the short straw, you get another snoozer—a letter from the Board Chair. The main points of the report are all the amazing things your organization did. The donor is relegated to a list in the back with a cursory nod of thanks. Every possible statistic from the past year is presented alongside dry program descriptions printed in a font that’s impossible to read…not that you’d want to read this stuff anyway. Oh and let’s not forget the crazy financial report and balance statements.
Option 2: It’s a compelling overview of what your supporters made possible—full of accomplishments, impact, and gratitude. The emphasis is on how amazing your donors are. There are testimonials from supporters and quotes from people who have benefitted from your work. You tell stories of hope alongside photos. It’s heartwarming. It makes you feel like you made a difference. It’s something you might show to others or keep to read in greater detail when you have more time.
The majority of annual reports are like the first one I described. I want yours to be like the second…So, how exactly do you do this?
Here’s what I recommend:
Open strong. Put your best photo of the year on the cover. You want an image that’s going to elicit an emotional response and draw people in. The photo should compel your supporters to flip through the pages. And on those first pages, you want a banner headline story of success and hope. In other words, don’t open with anything like a letter from the CEO, a table of contents, or your mission statement. Nothing will kill the momentum of that cover photo faster than organizational explaining what happened last year.
Focus on accomplishments. Not activities…accomplishments. Your donors are far less interested in what you did (activities) than they are in what the results were (accomplishments). For every item you think to include, ask yourself, “So what? To what end? Why does this matter?” Once you can answer that question, you have your story. If you can’t, move on.
Use stories, not statistics. I know, I know…you’ve heard this many times. But I still see too many stats. Your supporters don’t understand your numbers. You do because you know the context. You live and breathe this every day. Your donors don’t. Stories of one person, one iceberg, or one dog are relatable. This doesn’t mean you can never include numbers. But it does mean you should limit when and how you use them. Be strategic and explain why that figure is important.
Show me the people. Tell me about real people involved in the cause. They could be volunteers, donors, clients, or allies. Share what motivated them to get involved or what impact your organization has had in their lives. Or better yet—have them tell the stories themselves. Think gorgeous photo spread of faces alongside inspiring quotes.
Spare me the jargon. Too much of nonprofit communications just sound like the organization talking to itself. The “curse of knowledge” runs deep…once you’ve worked on a cause for more than a few months, it’s hard to talk about it like a real person. This is where having someone from outside the organization read your materials can be really helpful—whether it’s a paid professional like me or a personal connection. In a nutshell, my best advice is to talk (or write) to me like we’re having coffee…or even margaritas! Just kill the boring proposal language you’d send to a foundation and talk to me like I’m a friend. Because your donors are friends of your cause, right?
Design for skimming. People aren’t going to read big, dense articles. In fact, studies show that most don’t read past the first paragraph. So if you bury something important in the middle of your article, you can assume most donors won’t see. They are going to look at yourheadlines, pull quotes, photos, captions, etc. Put your time into making that content as compelling as possible. If you grab them there, you might pull them into reading deeper.
Scrap the printed list of supporters. This will save you a ton of space, not to mention aggravation. If you know your donors really want to see their names listed, consider a private URL on your website that you could direct them to. You can say something like, “In order to save trees and use even more of your contribution toward saving unicorns [or whatever you do], we’ve moved our listing of supporters online. Please visit www.yournonprofit.org/weloveyou to view the list. And as always, thank you for being such a generous person!” This strategy reinforces that you can be trusted to spend their money wisely. And it enables you to correct misspellings and much more easily add that person who will inevitably be left off the list by mistake.
Make your financial information matter. What story do you want these numbers to tell? Is it important to convey that overhead is incredibly low…that you get funding from a broad array of sustainable sources… that volunteer time amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars in in-kind support? Include the data that makes your point and write a little explanation of what we’re looking at and why it matters. For the other financial info, direct them to your website.
Consider calling it something other than an “annual report.” Think about the things you do annually—preparing for an annual audit, wrestling your cat into the carrier to go to the vet, getting your car inspected…For most of us, these aren’t enjoyable activities. So what message does something called an “annual report” send? And how would that message change if you called it an impact report, an accomplishment report, or a gratitude report?
Whatever you call it, these publications take significant time and money. Follow this advice and stop wasting both.