We nonprofits often put a great deal of time and effort into our annual reports, especially compared with how briefly most recipients will look at them.
“The annual report is a comic book,” a nonprofit executive once told me. “They look at the pictures and glance at the words.” The secret reality is that people do only four things with a nonprofit annual report. They:
- Read The Letter (typically from the executive director and the board chair)
- Check to see if they’re listed (if they are a donor)
- Read the captions on photos
- Look at the financials to see how big you are and if you had a surplus or a deficit.
You know it’s true! Yet (with the exception of The Letter) these are the areas that are often done at the last minute and without real thought.
So this year, rather than slave and anguish over the parts almost no one will read anyway, try a new approach:
Old: Which of our activities do we want to highlight?
New: What are the 2 – 5 accomplishments people would be surprised to hear that we did?
Old: What pictures do we have? Who should we put in it (examples: volunteers, board members)?
New: What would be 2 – 4 great captions? What photos can we take or get that would be relevant to those captions?
Old: Let’s send it to board members, funders, volunteers.
New: Let’s send it to everyone who is mentioned in the annual report plus nonprofits that we work with. Plus the moms of everyone on staff.
Old: By doing a 4-page annual report that we photocopy double-sided and staple, we show how frugal we are with your money (poverty mentality).
New: By having an 8-page attractive but modest annual report, we look and feel like the kind of organization you feel comfortable giving money to (upbeat, confident mentality).
Old: “Polite and warm” is the way to go, but sound official.
New: Get personal. Don’t hold back. Share something intimate and meaningful in the letter that can give an insight into your work and/or your year. Tell the reader something that makes him or her feel like an insider.
Old: Show how friendly we look / how diverse we are / how young we are / how big we are (etc.).
New: Include close-ups of individuals at various levels and at different jobs, with captions that say something about the person and accomplishments. Example: “Marisa takes the blood pressure of a young Nicaraguan immigrant — Spanish is just one of the 11 languages we have on staff.”
Final secrets: Put your annual report up on your website and spread out a hardcopy on the walls of your lobby. Have a 10 minute discussion about it at the board meeting. One way to think about the annual report is as a brochure disguised as an annual report: who should this particular brochure go to, and what responses are we trying to evoke from them?
P.S. The image at the top right of this article is from an annual report of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services: each year their report is a poster on one side and the written report on the other . . . which becomes wall art for many nonprofits for the year.