Your Nonprofit’s Annual Report: Drudgery or Opportunity?

We’re thrilled to welcome our newest guest blogger, Kimberlee Roth, one of our valued writers for consulting projects, writer for the Chicago Tribune and The Chronicle of Philanthropy among other publications, and author of Surviving a Borderline Parent. Here’s Kim…

They waste paper, money, time; they’re a project management bear; besides, no one reads them anyway. Know what I’m talking about? Yes (cue scary music): Annual Reports.

With budget woes that have touched us all in some way, it’s hard not to think about the resources and energy that go into producing an annual report. (And to wonder, as The Agitator did recently, “Are Annual Reports Dinosaurs?“)

But I assert that there is value in producing an annual report!

As a writer and storyteller specializing in nonprofit marketing and communications, I can’t help but think annual reports have gotten a bum rap. To me, and to most of my clients, they’re less drudgery than opportunity, satisfying even, to produce. Talk about a fantastic chance to convey not only the personality and zeitgeist of an organization, but its impact.

So many annual reports, though, are bo-ring. Donor lists, numbers served, satellite offices opened, equipment purchased. Me, me, me. Statistics and, often, buzzwords that lack enthusiasm, let alone context or a human face. No wonder the report is draining to produce.

Showing impact — through concise but compelling narratives, vibrant photos and interactive features — is what can excite and engage donors, volunteers, partners and clients. That doesn’t mean dozens of  glossy pages with a snazzy (read: expensive) design. What it does mean is authenticity, effective storytelling and a connection to your organizational strategies — in a welcoming tone that conveys both passion and competence.

This year, when “it’s that time again” and thoughts turn to all that goes into your annual report, don’t forget to focus on what you want out of it. Ask yourself, and your team, these questions:

  • What do we want this year’s annual report to accomplish? (Hint: Keep multiple audiences in mind, not only large donors.
  • What are some ways our annual report can advance our strategic marketing and fundraising goals?
  • How can our annual report complement, enhance and reinforce our other marketing tactics?

And, the $64,000 question:

  • How do we execute — within our budget and in ways that reflect our organization’s mission, personality and marketing and strategic plans — so that it delivers?

You already know my vote; what do you say? Drudgery or opportunity? I’d love to hear your thoughts here!

Readers, here are a few high-impact online alternatives to the traditional printed annual report. Worth some thought!

BTW, master fundraiser Tom Ahern is 100% aligned with Kim: “Think of your annual report as a once-a-year golden opportunity to deeply connect with your customers’ (i.e., donors’) feelings, dreams, aspirations, hidden and sometimes even embarrassing needs — like the need to be liked; or the need to do something good in the world, a need as common as the air in our lungs,” he says.

P.S. Get in-depth case studies, templates and tools, and guidance for nonprofit marketing  success — all featured in the twice-monthly Getting Attention e-update. Subscribe today.

Guest Blogger on March 30, 2011 in Annual Reports | 8 comments
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  • Annual reports need to evolve (much like the rest of nonprofit communications) to start telling stories and showing impact in addition to the statistical and donor information. The annual report, despite being touted as outdated, is still a valuable publication for sharing your work. As a promotional resource though it needs to reflect the larger communications strategy as Kimberlee suggests.

    Developing the annual report though is only half the battle, the other half is making it easily accessible and shareable among supporters. I recently blogged about a few ways nonprofits can share their annual reports. Hope it provides some creative ideas for GA readers.

  • Great article, Kim, and thanks Nancy for hosting. At VolunteerMatch we definitely view the annual report as a great opportunity to communicate our enthusiasm for what our network has accomplished over the past year to all portions of our community.

    It’s also a great impetus for being creative – so it’s not just the same old tired thing. Last year we used Prezi to make it fun and innovative:

    This year we’re planning something even more special…

  • I’m currently working on our 2010 Annual Report…yes, in April 2011. Yes it’s outdated material, but has value from a historical, archive perspective. And people expect one. More importantly, it’s a chance to tell stories and fulfill our transparency goals related to financial data and reporting. Why print so late? Wiht a mid-year fiscal calendar, most budgetary numbers are not available/approved until last month, so our report always comes out way after the year is complete..but that’s ok, it’s the nature of the beast.

    This year, the print report is 8 pages instead of 12 (In 2009, I moved from 24 pages to 12 and put all ‘other important info’ in an online annual report supplement-aka the OARS. Using the OARS (on our website under About Us>Resources & Downloads) allowed me to pick just what had to be in print and still recognize online what managers thought relevant to their programs. The OARS gives us a place to keep the year preserved, recorded and accessible. It’s allowed us to move slowly away from the traditional annual report to something more contemporary. This year, we’ll be using a magazine reader to make the online version more engaging. With just 8 print pages, basic must-present financials and worthy stories will float to the top and be printed; everything else, within reason, will find a page online…it’s a compromise but 2010 OARS provides a place for annual figures that many of our constituents look for year-after-year. the print version cites the OARS so it drives traffic to our website and improves our SEO; look for the 2010 OARS April 30.

  • Michael Remaley

    Both those who hate annual reports and those who believe they have an important role to play will find lots of support and ideas on this topic at, which has been developed by the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative, Communications Network and HAMILL REMALEY breakthrough communications. Personally, I think timely electronic communications can do better anything that an annual report used to do, but there are those who make a strong case for an annual look back at what’s been accomplished and what lies ahead.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Thanks all for sharing your thoughts and resources. Annual reports seem to be the smoking gun of nonprofit communications–the conversation never stops (which is the way I like it).

    Of course there is no black and white here other than consistent evolution — according the wants and habits of your audiences, and other influences in your organization’s environment. Tara’s example of how she is gradually re-shaping the WAC’S annual report is a great one.

  • I’ve created a wiki where nonprofits can share their “new and improved” annual reports:

    Let’s all think more creatively about how to create and use this must-have document!

  • Thanks, everyone, for sharing your ideas and links!

    David, you beat me to it! Ideas for presenting annual reports is the subject of my next guest post. As all of the comments here–and the examples on Kivi’s wiki show–there are SO many options.

    Shari, I loved VolunteerMatch’s Prezi annual report. It definitely conveyed your org’s enthusiasm. I can’t wait to see what you have in store for the next one.

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