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Your Annual Report: Telling a Great Story

| Updated November 28, 2017

Make your annual report shine

Every annual report must include the essentials. Once they're in place, you can think about making your report a powerful story of your organization that can inspire and engage your supporters, beneficiaries, partners, policymakers and funders.

Before you start: is it worth it?

Your annual report can be a valuable tool for showcasing your organization.

But don’t produce a beautifully-designed, detailed annual review or impact report just for the sake of it. One of the challenges with annual publications is the effort to appeal to everyone — with an end result that sometimes appeals to no one. Might your time and budget be better invested in something more targeted instead?

Find an annual report structure that suits

You’ve decided to invest in a narrative annual report. But how do you balance the must-haves with the nice-to-haves?

Some charities start with the more inviting narrative, leaving the statutory information to the latter part of the report. Others separate the two entirely, with a more reader-friendly annual review and/or impact report published alongside the more formal report.

CharityComms provides this generic list of contents for a report that includes both narrative and statutory information:

  • Message from the trustees
  • Details of charity and its mission
  • Structure and governance
  • Goals and objectives for the year
  • Risks and challenges
  • How goals were met (or why they failed to be met)
  • Activities in detail
  • Impact in detail: how your activities met your goals, what that changed for your beneficiaries, how many beneficiaries were reached, and measurable impact on them
  • Other notable achievements
  • Involvement of volunteers
  • Goals for next year and beyond
  • Finance report — this contains most of the statutory information
  • Message of thanks to supporters, donors, volunteers
  • Call to action — how readers can donate, join, support or volunteer

You can of course be much more creative in your structure (as long as you include the essentials, somewhere). Knowhow Nonprofit suggests writing your report along a theme that’s highlighted in the structure, design and even title: "Think about giving your report a name that reflects your organization and its ambitions," the authors suggest. So even if you use 'annual report' in the subheading, choose something more inviting or descriptive as the main heading.

Bring your story to life — but be selective

Bring your report to life with case studies of beneficiaries (from a brief quote and photo, to a more detailed story) and perhaps also from volunteers. Share what you’ve learned along the way. Highlight verifiable, important facts and figures and use infographics to help visualize them. Make it easy and clear for an outsider to see what you’ve done where and why, and what’s happened as a result. Report back on the promises you made last year.

But be selective. Your report is a collection of highlights, not a list of every single thing that happened.

As you’re making your selection, keep asking yourself: so what? This is one of the most important elements to keep in mind, says PR and events coordinator at The Wallich, Amy Lee, interviewed in the Guardian. Make sure that whatever you include answers this question.

And don’t be afraid to narrow your target audience if that’s relevant. CharityComms' most recent Best Practice Guide highlights blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan, who target their annual report specifically at major gift donors and trust: this guides their design and what they choose to include.

Consider creative and digital formats

An advantage of separating your annual review or impact report from the statutory information is more flexibility on formats. That can help you stand out. Alongside a limited print run of a hard copy (or instead of it) you could create a microsite (that is, a website of its own, that links to/from your organization’s site), a series of videos, a calendar, an interactive PDF, a presentation — or even a graphic novel. Your print version could be a poster or a desk calendar.

Weigh up your audience and the investment required to choose the best format. Nonprofit copywriting expert Jennifer Campbell provides further inspiration with some of the most innovative examples and ideas.

Campbell argues that some kind of digital or online integration is essential, even if it's simple (such as a dynamic PDF with internal links). As well as being more engaging and interactive, an online report has an obvious advantage over print-only: its reach is potentially much wider, and that reach can be tracked. The report can be easily accessed all year round, designed with social sharing in mind, and enable viewers to dip into the chapters or sections they want. Digital reports can also be made more accessible for the visually impaired, for example with options to increase text size.

Get it out there!

Production is only half the battle — you also want your report to be seen. Here are some starting points:

  • Make it easy to find from your website's homepage
  • Share extracts, linking back to the full report, via social media. Use visuals to grab attention: photos and infographics work well
  • Publish a blog post (or a series) mentioning selected highlights
  • Include links in your e-newsletters
  • Use a pinned Tweet or Facebook post
  • Add a direct link in staff email signatures for a limited time
  • Celebrate the official launch of your report, perhaps at an event you’re already running. Use the occasion to have a trustee or someone else speak briefly about why the report is important. Can you time your launch to coincide with something else happening in your sector — and turn it into a media opportunity? If so, prepare soundbites and brief media spokespeople accordingly

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

References

CharityComms: A year in the life: A best practice guide to annual publications by Kay Parris and Jennifer Campbell (second edition, 2017)

CharityComms: Going digital with your annual report by Chris Michaeloudis (2015)

The Guardian: Best bits: how to write the best annual report by Kate Hodge (2011)

Adam’s Story: The Wallich Annual Report (2010)

Jennifer Campbell: Innovative charity annual review ideas (2015)

Jennifer Campbell: Your guide to charity annual reviews 2016: 6 ingredients (2016)

Knowhow Nonprofit: Annual reports (2017)

CharityComms: Make the most of your charity report by Gillian Daines (2011)

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