40 Ideas for Creating and Promoting Your Nonprofit Annual Report

nonprofit annual report layout content data charts donors volunteersEvery year, nonprofits have the opportunity to update their donors and the general public about their progress, accomplishments and financials in their annual report. Some release the report in the new year and others at the end of a significant quarter. A report is an excellent opportunity to show people how you are accomplishing your mission through stories, statistics and photographs. Try these ideas to create and promote your next annual report.

Get Started: Planning and Project Management

  1. Audience - First, consider your audience. Annual reports are usually written one of two ways. Are you speaking to the general public or specifically to donors? The language you use in your report should reflect your audience. If the report is for donors, make sure it addresses relevant concerns and answers questions. If you design it for the general public, the language should be informational and easy for anyone to pick up and read.
  2. Donor-Driven Language - If the report is donor-specific, focus on gratitude by using language that reflects involvement and contributions. For example, "You helped make the following initiative possible…" Strive to create a piece your donors would want to keep out on their coffee table to share with others. Donors should understand your organization's goal and that the nonprofit's accomplishments are also their accomplishments. Keep in mind that donors often contribute in many ways, not just financial contributions.
  3. Public-Driven Language - The general public should be able to read the report and understand the vision of the nonprofit easily, and specifically how that mission was accomplished throughout the year. Avoid particular language that may only make sense to donors or insiders.
  4. Budget - Define your project budget and how you will allocate it as you produce the annual report. The budget will help define format and resourcing.
  5. Plan Ahead - Create a detailed project timeline and a system for tracking report progress. Research outsourcing options and factor them into the overall timeline. Will you give your audience a choice of how to view the content on mobile or desktop, video or blog post? Will you link to it in your app or in an email campaign? Plan accordingly.  
  6. Scale for Scope Creep - Scope creep happens when the overall timeline and plan for your project expand while the project is in process, thus shifting the overall outcome or deliverable. In the world of project management, scope creep is a common issue and serves team members well to notice it and even plan for it. When you sense this shift , take a moment to get on the same page with your team and explicitly define what project changes will mean for the overall timeline.

Sell tickets and easily collect payments for a benefit concert. SAMPLE

All About Optics: Choose Your Format

  1. Short Format - Short annual reports are at most three to four pages long and make for a brief piece to launch your organization's mission-critical outcomes. Short reports highlight strategic-level information and assume people already know the ins and outs of the organization. Include information about where your audience can go to find more detailed information.
  2. Long Format - Long reports are more than five pages, contain a variety of content and tend to include points of information and inspiration through a story. Consider including a table of contents so people can quickly reference the sections they are most interested in reviewing.
  3. Consider Multimedia - To stand out from other organizations, think about a non-traditional format for your report. Choose a form of media unique and true to your nonprofit — like a video of those you are helping overseas or a photo essay including a local case study. If your organization has a podcast, plan to spend time sharing results and stories from the report. Personalize the format according to your organization and budget limitations. For example, if you are an environmental agency maybe you could print a few reports on wood or recycled materials.
  4. Make it Art - Choose a theme or design plan that resonates with your industry. For example, a photography-driven nonprofit might create its annual report on the back of a series of their original photographs. As an added bonus, donors can keep and frame the report as an art piece for their homes.
  5. Visual Layout - Decide on template colors and final format (print or digital). What version of your logo will you use? Separate blocks of text with pictures and pull-out quotes listing statistics, graphics or case studies. Use interactive infographics or animated timelines to illustrate statistics and milestones to make them easier to read. Remember, white space is your friend. You want to use excellent content and keep it short while still displaying your best results.
  6. Photographs - Use artistic photographs (as opposed to text) to engage the reader and tell your story. Research websites that offer free or low-cost stock images, or consider buying images from a local photographer in your area. View every page of your report as prime real estate and make the content meaningful and compelling.

Content Creation: What to Include

  1. Tell the Full Story - In a long format report, tell a comprehensive story from the first page to the last. Stories are what capture and engage people's hearts, not just their minds. Place your best photograph on the cover and make sure all case studies include a photograph. If you are printing and binding the report, talk to your printer about photo resolution and plated press and digital printing options. To assure you hit your overall goals, take a moment to storyboard the full report before writing and collecting content. Clarify the "why" for the report and for your organization as a whole and make it clear.
  2. Celebrate - Make your report celebratory. The annual report is a great opportunity to celebrate accomplishments in the past year. Sometimes learning means learning from failure as well as success. Stick with positive language and watch it make a difference.
  3. Admit Failure - Be willing to note failure if applicable. For example, "We tried X, and it didn't work, but we learned X from it, so it advanced our cause." Most donors are okay with calculated risk. Just be honest about it and note how you learned from it.
  4. Case Studies - Include at least one case study or impact story from the field. People should feel inspired after reading it and ready to act. Also, keep it short so people are more likely to read it.
  5. President's Letter - Include a heartfelt letter from your president or CEO. This should include what he or she is most proud of from the past year and his or her vision for the upcoming year.
  6. Quotes & Endorsements - Include quotes from beneficiaries when possible and endorsements from people you've served. It connects the reader to the beneficiaries and brings the organization's mission to life. Use quotes and endorsements from people of high regard that align with your nonprofit's mission and vision.
  7. Mission and Vision Statements - Include your mission and/or vision statement and then make sure your report notes how you are carrying out that vision and mission. Show concrete results as well as inspiring narratives. This should help your audience understand the problem your nonprofit is working to solve, and what your nonprofit is doing to help.
  8. Diversity - Check your images and content to be sure it is using inclusive language that will appeal to a variety of readers. Your content and images should reflect the population your nonprofit serves.
  9. Consider Copyright - Cite necessary sources for quotes or data in your report and provide credit to borrowed photos or content. Research your industry's copyright laws to be sure your project follows protocol.
  10. Contact Information - Provide the contact information for your nonprofit at the bottom of the report including mailing address, phone number, website and social media handles. If people are ready to give after seeing the report, make sure you have a step-by-step way for them to do that.
  11. Accrediting Agencies - List any accrediting agencies you belong too such as the Better Business Bureau or Charity Navigator. Plan to deliver a stack of print reports to them for display.

Coordinate registration for a benefit race with a sign up. SAMPLE

Money Moves: Financial Details

  1. Commitment to Transparency - Report accurately and make the financials easy to read. Use a pie chart with an easy-to-read key for the big picture financial summary, and let people know where they can access past annual reports or 990s. Show how much of the budget is going toward administration and how much is going toward program costs.
  2. Graphs - Use graphs to equate the numbers to real-time facts. Most people skim annual reports, so highlight anything of major importance. For the people who do want to dig through, make sure your breakdown of activities, gains and other revenue is clear. A slideshow is an excellent format for displaying charts and graphs.
  3. Impact of the Finances - Explain the impact and how lives have changed. You should have several bullet points and graphics here with easy-to-read numbers, simple graphics and photos. For example: "1,000 children received tutoring, care and nutritious snacks at our afterschool program this past year." Try to include 5 key highlights. If you include more than that, the information starts to get lost. Use graphics to the keep it visually interesting.
  4. Fact-checking - Check and double-check all statistics and quotes as well as the spelling of names used in the report. Plan for several reviewing phases so that multiple people can check for errors.

Focus on Purpose: Thank Contributors and Cast Vision

  1. Team - Introduce people to your staff or the executive team for larger organizations. This can be in a sidebar next to other pertinent information. In an informal report, you can share silly facts about staff members. For a more formal introduction, share headshots and a brief bio.
  2. Board of Directors - Include names and roles of board members. Plan to give each board member a stack of printed reports to share with friends. Don't forget to thank the board for their service and the many ways they contribute to the overall organization.
  3. Donor Highlight - Some large nonprofits like to highlight major contributors. You can list them in a sidebar or have Donor Spotlight boxes with short stories for each.
  4. Thank You Notes - Consider including notes of thanks from team members at all levels: directors, editors, board, administration. This adds a different personal element to help strengthen the connection between donors and staff.
  5. Candid Photos - Consider including fun behind-the-scenes or candid photos. This helps donors understand and know you better and feel more involved. These images can double as social media posts for report promotion.
  6. A Vision for Future - Most annual reports highlight what happened in the past year, but also consider highlighting your vision for the next year, three years, or five years. This gives a compelling reason for donors to continue investing in the organization.

Host a fundraising gala for your organization with a sign up. SAMPLE

Get the Word Out: How to Promote

  1. Tailor to the Format - Customize the promotion plan based on your report's format. For example, if you are unveiling a specific webpage or new section of the site with report information on it, you will want to test it and work out the bugs before going public. When it's ready, send an email to your donors with the relevant link or a preview to entice them to click to read more. If you're creating a print piece, plan to have it available as a PDF and as hard copies. The PDF should also be available for viewing and download on your website. Hard copies can be in a booklet, brochure or poster format.
  2. Packaging - Send annual reports to every donor with a thank you letter. If sending a hard copy, consider original packaging/mailing that is unique to your nonprofit. Also, consider who you are sending it to. Many younger donors prefer electronic copies and older donors prefer hard copies. This is not always the case, so it is essential to know your donors and what they prefer.
  3. Social Media Content - Early on in the project timeline, consider writing social media content for the channels you will use to promote the report.
  4. Plan an Event - Pair the rollout of your annual report with an event your organization is already hosting, such as a volunteer appreciation dinner or a company anniversary party. Don't have an upcoming event? Plan one and celebrate the hard work your organization has done this year. Make sure your board members see the report before this event so they can reference it when chatting with staff and volunteers.
  5. Hand-Deliver - When possible, hand-deliver hard copy annual reports. It adds a personal touch and it gives donors the opportunity to engage and ask questions.
  6. Conference Call - Some nonprofits are putting aside formal reports all together for a national conference call where the CEO or executive director leads a discussion with stakeholders and donors about the progress and impact of the last year. This provides personal discussion, the option for Q&A and real-time information.
  7. Interactive Multimedia - In addition to digital options, some nonprofits are creating interactive web pages for their annual reports that load stats in real time or involve animation for infographics. Send links to both current and potential donors and include in social media posts. Gain traction in your community by pitching the report to your local media.
You and your staff will enjoy creating your annual report as you remember and celebrate the past year. It should be encouraging for staff, donors and volunteers to see their impact and serve as a tool to propel your organization forward. Keep in mind that it will also become a valuable resource for cultivating new partnerships. Enjoy as you remember and celebrate!

Andrea Johnson is a native Texan now living in Charlotte, N.C., with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys running, photography and good chocolate.