Oct 12, 2017

Breathing Life into Your Non-Profit’s Annual Report

Build relationships, build community

By Stu Slayen     

A former colleague, noticing that I had started to work on my first annual report for the organization, made a passing comment to the effect of: “Sorry you have to work so hard on the annual report. No one’s going to read it.”

The comment didn’t exactly motivate me, but it did prompt me – then as an employee and now as an independent consultant – to think about how an annual report can truly become a meaningful, readable product that connects a non-profit organization to its audience. How can a “report” produce “rapport”?

Here are a few ideas to consider as you get ready to tackle your annual publication obligation.

1. Let your readers see themselves in the report

Your annual report is not a strategic planning paper. It’s not a governance document. It’s not a 48-page visioning document. It’s a tool for your readers to see how they fit with your organization. It’s a tool to inform and inspire.

I once worked with a dynamic team at a personal care home as we re-imagined their annual report. The document was enriched dramatically by inviting people representing different constituencies to write articles. The articles weren’t journalistic pieces about stakeholders. They were first-person stories by stakeholders – a volunteer at the home, a nurse, and (most touching) the 85-year-old wife of an ailing resident.

To gather the pieces, we asked these contributors to make comprehensive notes or take a shot at writing the piece. My role was to edit the content for length and style, communicating with the writers to ensure that the final versions reflected their voice, their intention, and their spirit. The feedback to the report was outstanding. And, at the risk of sounding strangely romantic about an annual report, it was a joyful, lovely project to develop.

Consider inviting people representing your funders and donors, your clients, your staff, your volunteers, the organizations with whom you partner, and maybe even your suppliers to tell their stories about your organization. Get the text edited (or ghostwritten, if need be), get proper approvals, and run photos of your writers.

The voices and faces of stakeholders will warm up your report and inspire audiences.

2. Coordinate, don’t own

If your organization has communications professionals, these are the people who likely lead the development of the report. To use a football metaphor, a successful report is more likely to emerge when the staffer in charge acts more like a quarterback and less like a team owner.

Annual reports are truly community properties. The programs and activities featured in the report exist only because of the hard work being done by the organization’s volunteers and professionals. Collectively, those programs and activities form the soul of the organization. Let the champions of the work be the ones to describe the work; invite colleagues from throughout the organization to write, share opinions, and submit photos.

Ask your graphic designer to offer two or three different versions of the report cover that people can view and discuss. Share your editorial plan with your colleagues and invite them to comment. Solicit ideas for articles and features. If you outsource coordination of the report, let your consultant engage directly with your staff and other stakeholders.

All of this requires a little bit of letting go, but your readers will spend more time with your report!

3. Use words to explain numbers

If you’re like me, you’d rather stare at a number of tables than at a table of numbers.

One of my clients wisely invites their Chief Financial Officer to write a first-person commentary to shed light on the financial statements. In his piece, he describes the organization’s financial position, points to highlights of the previous year, and considers opportunities and challenges for the upcoming year. It’s delivered in plain language and it’s very smart.

If you use charts and graphics to explain your data further, make sure that the visuals clarify, not complicate. Use small pieces of crisp text to explain what the visuals are trying to highlight. For example: “The pie chart to the left shows that increases in administrative expenses were offset by increased revenues from facility rentals.”

4. Use the words your readers use

Your annual report is not the time to show off your new thesaurus (for which, ironically, there is no other word). Keeping the language plain and simple will keep people in the report longer and probably leave them with a better understanding of your organization.

If you let stakeholders hold the pen for some of the content as suggested above, the plain language challenge will be easier to meet. It’s your technical content that could raise some red flags. Encourage your writers to use metaphor, stories, and conversational language.

After your first drafts are edited, share them with people outside of your organization. Does the content make sense to your graphic designer? Your printer? Your sister? Your psychic? If the final content is (a) technically sound to the satisfaction of the experts within your organization; and (b) reasonably easy to understand by non-experts outside of your organization, then you have accomplished something grand.

Good luck in your annual report planning. If it’s getting you down, remember that it only happens once a year.