Not Your Grandparents’ Annual Report: New Ways to Connect with Readers

We’re thrilled to welcome back guest blogger, Kimberlee Roth, one of our team’s valued writers. Kim also writes  for the Chicago Tribune and The Chronicle of Philanthropy among other publications, and is author of Surviving a Borderline Parent.

Still not entirely convinced annual reports present opportunity over drudgery? Many nonprofits are bridging print and digital content in creative ways that make their annual reports interactive, engaging and attention-grabbing.

Of course there are some caveats. But first, a few options for adding a third dimension so that “same old” becomes a thing of the past:

1) Print with online clone: Sure, you can create a PDF of your print content and put it online, but why not add clickable links in the PDF to make the report more interactive? Or explore some newer tools, such as treesaver and issuu that allow you to create sleek online, magazine-style publications with your content.

2) Print teaser and online complement: For its 2010 report, Partners in Health sent out an eight-page summary that points recipients to the full 40-page report (PDF) on its website.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute sent out a large, tri-fold brochure with summaries of its “top 10” stories. The full interactive report lives on the HHMI website, with a PDF option, too.

Getting Attention reader, Tara, of the Watershed Agricultural Council shared how WAC has shortened its print edition and uses issu for the digital version. WAC also includes an online supplement in PDF for additional information.

The Kellogg Foundation recently added QR, or quick response, codes to its report to connect print stories with online video. Communications manager Rebecca Noricks explains.

3) Digital only: VolunteerMatch went digital in 2009 and presented its entire report in Prezi, a novel presentation application. (Think PowerPoint meets kaleidoscope.)

Excited? Great. But not so fast:

In With the Old
A recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article pointed out that the move to digital reporting can be steep.

One way to manage costs is to look at what (well-done!) multimedia content you already have–videos, podcasts, photo-slideshows–that can be repurposed.

Strategy First
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of cool new tools, but always go back to your communications strategy. Ask yourself:

  • Who are your audiences?
  • What messages are trying to send to each?
  • What are the best ways to deliver? (QR codes won’t fly unless your audiences use smartphones (a lot); a direct mail report isn’t going to impress most Millennials.)

Preserve Prose
Photos and videos may be worth 1,000 (written) words, but don’t slash the text from your report. Clear, concise writing is critical–it sets the stage and gives context to your messages. Without it, disparate pieces of multimedia content can feel disjointed and confusing. Compelling prose ties the piece together and keeps audiences focused right where you want ’em to be: on your messages, mission and impact.

How is your organization thinking about approaching its next annual report? Please share your experiences and ideas here.

Guest Blogger on May 3, 2011 in Annual Reports | 7 comments
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  • Thanks for posting this, Nancy. The Philanthropy Awareness Initiative and the Communications Network have been collecting anecdotes on ways foundations have been grappling with the AR question at a special website, There’s also a link on the site to a report that takes a critical look at the role of annual reports in foundation communications.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Bruce, thanks for pointing us to that incredible resource. So thorough and so helpful!

  • Great post! I led a communications workshop last week and the group discussed the challenge of balancing on-line and off-line assets like annual reports. I agree with the author that we need to re-imagine our approach to the staples of the non-profit: brochures, annual reports, appeals. Some tips above that can be easily incorporated.

  • How timely, Nancy! We just produced an annual report and took an approach that’s new for us. Instead of printing more than 6,000 copies of the 20-page book we’re trying a 3-pronged approach.

    1) Current and recently lapsed donors (and a few others) will receive a printed copy. That’s about 1,600 books.

    2) Those for whom we have e-mail addresses will receive an e-mail blast this week with a link to the electronic version of the annual report on our website. That version is a PDF of the original with the addition of about 10 hotlinks. People can view additional information on our website, read newspaper articles related to our work & award-winners, even view video press coverage of an event we initiated.

    3) Everyone else in our database will receive a a printed postcard letting them know that our annual report is ready for viewing and giving a link to the report on our website.

    All of the links are trackable (of course) and I’ll be keeping an eye on our website & e-mail marketing analytics. I’m hoping to see lots of activity! There’s still much to be done to improve our communications and we’re working hard at it.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Great news, Karen. Please share the feedback you get in response to this strategy.

  • Thank you for this interesting post! A terrific resource

  • As a designer, I regularly confront the issue of how to integrate traditional offline print communications with online media. Your points about strategy are key, as they are in any decision regarding effective communications. I find that often, a mix of media is the healthiest, most effective way to go.

    I recently completed designing an annual report for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC). For several years we had posted a pdf of the printed report on the school’s Web site. Over the years, we added features such as links to video and page-to-page navigation.

    This year’s online version ( is html pages with links to video, audio and an online game. Last year, when we embedded video in an interactive pdf, some users got security warnings; with html we saw none of those this year. And useful analytics add to the appeal of this approach.

    Readers of the printed report are prompted on the Table of Contents page and in the footers of each page to view the online version. And in this year’s printed report, we added a QR code that links to the College’s online game.

    Thank you for your thoughtful and timely post.

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