Will your annual report hit the recycling bin before it gets read?

January 31, 2008


Is your non-profit in planning mode for this year’s annual report? Will anyone read it? For many organizations, the annual report represents a significant investment of time and money but so many of them end up being bland and destined for the recycling bin before they even get read.

Over the years, I’ve been responsible for creating many annual reports. The early ones were pretty boring and I’d be surprised if anyone read more than their first couple of pages. I knew I needed to do something different, so I started reading every annual report I could get my hands on. As I became more confident in my role, I began to challenge the agencies I worked for to break out of the standard annual report format.

The standard format comprises a chronological review of all of the organization’s activities for the year divided by department or service area. It also includes the obligatory pie/bar graph illustrating service statistics, the entire audited financial statement and the donor thank you list. Ho hum.

You can turn the annual report into an effective vehicle to communicate with stakeholders while including the above information, but if you don’t treat it like the creative, branding opportunity it is, it’s a waste of money. Here are a few of my ideas for moving beyond the standard annual report. I’d love to hear tips and suggestions from others in the blogosphere who have experience pulling together this often most dreaded annual publication. Please share your ideas by leaving a comment.

Remember your audience
Like any other publication (e.g.newsletter, website), start your planning with identifying the audience you are trying to reach. Is your primary audience government funders, the clients you serve, those who make referrals to your organization, donors? List them in priority and keep them in mind as you consider format and the kind of information that will interest them. Also think of a goal for your audience. What do you want to motivate your stakeholder to do upon reading your report?

Keep your mission in mind
Avoid reducing your report to an endless account of all of the year’s activities. Focus on the ones that significantly advance your mission. You might leave out the fact that you reorganized the offices of your administrative staff, for example. Although this might have made the office more functional—the direct tie to your mission is a bit of a stretch.

Choose a unifying theme
Choosing a theme for your report will help you to focus the content and graphics. Reflect on the past year, the main activities/issues that dominated it, and how they related to your mission. A couple of examples of unifying themes might be:

  • Domestic violence services: “Courage” – how the many ordinary clients the agency serves demonstrate extraordinary courage every day by leaving abusive relationships. You can extend this to the courage of staff and volunteers who walk the journey alongside those clients, the courage of board members to make bold decisions to improve service etc.
  • Child welfare/treatment centre: “Dreams” – Focus on the dreams of the kids you serve, how your agency helps them to acheive those dreams, the dreams of your agency for future/more comprehensive services etc.

Once you’ve chosen a theme, make sure that all of the content reflects that theme in some way.

Focus on people
Make your report more compelling by telling the stories of the people involved with your non-profit (i.e. clients, staff, volunteers, board members). Use these stories to reinforce your theme, illustrate your service stats and the accomplishments of your organization. Readers relate to people stories.

Photos and headlines
Most of your audience will only read portions of your report so use as many photos or illustrations as possible to convey your message. Use headlines to draw your audience into the rest of the text or at least give them the gist of what the body copy says. If they read nothing but your headline or the enlarged quote you pulled from the body copy, will they get your message?

Use one voice and keep it short
Good editing is vital. Your audience is not going to read long, uninterrupted pages of text. Keep paragraphs short and make sure you have lots of white space around your text.

If you have several people contributing to the report, have one editor who will harmonize all those different writing styles. Be ruthless about cutting redundant words, sentences and paragraphs. This, along with an active, clean writing style will increase the likelihood that your report will get read.

Pare down financial report
Does a funding or regulatory body compel you to include your full financial statement in the annual report? If not, consider including just the summary page with a paragraph of explanation for those not accustomed to reading financial documents. Make a note that the full financial statement is available on your website or by request. This will save you space and money. Few people read this section.

Consider non-traditional design formats
I’ve seen great reports designed as a poster or a mini-newspaper. People notice reports that are smaller than usual or have a different shape so they’re less likely to end up on the bottom of a desk’s paper pile.

Allow enough time
If you start your annual report planning a month before you need to publish it, your ability to pay attention to all of the above, and leave time for design and printing, goes out the window. Use the standard formula of counting back from the due date while considering how much time you will need for each stage of planning and production to arrive at the date you should begin the process.

Tell me about the last annual report you actually read. What compelled you to read it? Can you share examples of creative formats or themes?

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9 Responses to “Will your annual report hit the recycling bin before it gets read?”

  1. messagecom Says:

    Thanks Seo! Glad the blog has been helpful.

  2. seo Says:

    Hey there! Someone in my Facebook group shared this site with us so I came to give it a look. I’m definitely enjoying the information. I’m book-marking and will be tweeting this to my followers! Great blog and brilliant design.


  3. Excellent write up, I will save this in my Newsvine account. Have a awesome day.

  4. messagecom Says:

    Thanks for your question, Annie. I think what people choose to read first depends on the person and the organization. I think it’s true that many people look to the comments from the board president/chair for the general highlights of what’s in the report. From my experience in the nonprofit, social service sector, I think the section that is equally compelling is the service statistics or outcomes page. I think folks are eager to see what the organization has accomplished in terms of its services for the year. How many people has the organization reached? How successful have the services been?

  5. Annie Lewis Says:

    What do you thnk people read first when they get your annual report? I’ve always heard that the letter from the Board Chair and/or President is what readers seek out, but maybe not. Let me know your thoughts. Thanks.


  6. Loved it. Keep this page up; I’m listing it as a resource for a workshop I do on annual reports!

  7. Kevin Daoust Says:

    Very insightful stuff. I’ll be sure to pass this along to my ED (we’re always looking for good marketing and communications tools and strategies…)

  8. messagecom Says:

    Thanks Donna. I’m curious, have you seen a move away from full financial statements in the non-profit annual reports you’ve worked on? I’ve found that some have never thought of this as an option–believing that if they pare it down to the summary this somehow looks less transparent.


  9. Your tips are very good! I’ve worked on several annual reports for nonprofits, and you can do a lot on a small budget if you focus and stick to your theme.


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