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10 Ways to Reinvent Your Nonprofit Annual Report

By Steve Smith

I’ve been seeing some discouraging comments lately about nonprofit annual reports. More specifically, that the typical nonprofit AR hardly gets read. Could this be true? 

If you’re the nonprofit pro who invests time, effort and budget dollars to get the AR done, the last thing you want to hear is that the distance between mail pile and trash is shrinking. But if that’s the hard truth, maybe some tough love is justified here.

Take an objective look. Have you made your nonprofit AR all that it could be? We’ve all seen informative, well-designed annual reports buried in the pages of plain vanilla newsletters, or reduced to a page-count of two. They leave us either wanting more or not caring at all. But why? Is it for lack of funding? Lack of imagination? Lack of planning?

Some believe the AR is a place to report your financials, acknowledge your donors and call it a day. This is clearly the kind of thinking that will stimulate awareness, support and fundraising – for your competition. Why not remake your AR into a storytelling and engagement platform that blows away the competition? One that creates a crystal-clear picture of your mission in action and creates a fire hose of inrushing support.

If it was a medical condition, I imagine it would be called “Annual Report Anemia.” The only prescription? It’s not more cowbell, it’s taking a fresh look while considering the following essentials:

1. Begin at the end: Consider how it will be distributed

Consider first how your AR will be distributed. This will dictate, or at least inform, the distribution process. I believe the nonprofit AR should be a stand-alone piece, not buried within the pages of another publication (unless that publication has a powerful distribution and readership profile). But even if that is your plan, your AR can still make a greater impact.

2. Try something unusual

Try an unusual size or format. One that doesn’t get lost in the mail pile. Or maybe a package that includes a branded and/or themed promotional item. Printing and mailing costs represent a hardship? Much of the content can be migrated to your website or included in a video.

3. Shift the point of view

Writing your AR from a different perspective can make a much bigger impact. Nonprofit development folks do a lot of talking about their dedication to storytelling, but when annual report time comes, like Tuesday’s meatloaf, here’s that uninspiring “brochure copy” again. Where are the genuine stories based on authentic human experiences? Here’s where the work of a talented, experienced freelance writer can make a big difference.

4. High quality content matters

Got the writing assignment buttoned down? Good. Now consider all the different kinds of content that can help you tell the story. Inspired graphic design, videos, infographics, professional still photography and links to clean, good-looking web pages can all contribute to your AR success.

And while we’re talking about content, be sure to include your AR in your overall Content Marketing Strategy, so you won’t overlook ways to maximize its distribution through all of your various content channels.

Contact us for your free Annual Report Development Checklist!

Don’t let another year go by without publishing that killer Annual Report. Our detailed checklist is tailored for nonprofit development and communications professionals, regardless of experience level. Just contact us and tell us you want “The Checklist.” We’ll get it out to you immediately, if not sooner.


5. Call it something else

Try calling your AR something other than an annual report. Community Engagement Report? Sounds like you have a genuine desire to engage with your communities of interest. Community Impact Report? This title implies that you’ve made an impact – a positive one of course – on the communities you serve. I know, what a concept!

6. Emphasize your accomplishments

Be sure to emphasize your accomplishments during the year, with the evidence to back up your claims. It’s irresponsible to make statements about your effectiveness without backing up those statements with convincing, real-world proof. As Ben Franklin once said, “Well done is better than well said.” (That guy is in the Advertising Hall of Fame, so he surely must have known his stuff!)

7. Always be storytelling

What better way to demonstrate your effectiveness? Begin and end with storytelling. To provide that real-world evidence of your mission and its impact, share a beneficiary story and put it right up front. This is the story of how someone’s life has been changed. Why push it back to page 9? Then, go ahead and share at least two more, for a total of three stories that really bring out the goose bumps. As I said earlier in this post, stories can be told in different ways. If you want to summarize or “Tease” with a paragraph in print, then migrate the actual story to an online video, that’s great. You’ll save some paper and enable a rich, multi-sensory experience for your audience.

8. Let them know your areas of need

Don’t be afraid to highlight areas of need – where you’ve done well, but could do even more and better with additional resources (aka donor support). Describe what you need, how it will advance your mission, and what it will cost. Be sure to emphasize the community need, not your needs.

9. Stimulate the next action

Here’s where the principles of inbound marketing can be applied. Does your AR stimulate the next action? Is it linked to dedicated landing pages on your website that close the loop, reinforce your Case For Support, introduce new services or initiatives? In the inbound marketing word, they’re called conversions. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I know this works.

10. Wrap it up with a renewed “ask”

To wrap things up, go ahead and ask for donors’ renewed support. Since your AR audience will certainly include lapsed donors, let them know that you want them back and give them a rundown of how their donations can be put to work. We’ve all seen this technique before: Your $100 donation will buy new schoolbooks for this many children. Your $300 donation will feed a family for a month. Your $500 donation will help eliminate homelessness. If small-dollar donations are important, it’s good practice to show how small dollars can make a big impact.

Suggested Annual Report Contents:

Summary of Highlights for the Fiscal Year
Financial Information
Story of Accomplishment No. 1
Story of Accomplishment No. 2
Areas of Need with Ask
Story of Accomplishment No. 3
Donor List

Regardless of your nonprofit’s size or when your FY ends, you should never underestimate the importance of your AR as a community engagement vehicle.

Read more:

Can the Inbound Marketing Concept be Applied to Nonprofits?

Use Long-Form Content to Grow a Bigger, Stronger CM Program

Content Marketing for Nonprofits


About Consonant Custom Media:

Consonant Custom Media provides content marketing and storytelling for hospitals, health systems, nonprofits, foundations and life sciences innovators who want to make more meaningful connections with their communities of interest. We create original content that is truly consonant, or in harmony, with our clients' brand values and drives profitable consumer action.Clients use our original content strategically, to reach specific objectives in perception management, physician relations, service line development, sales and donor development. 

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Mike Eisgrau
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Tampa Bay

Stephen A. Smith
Publisher | Creative Director 

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