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Produce an Annual Report that People Will Actually Read

Remember those 45-page annual reports with pages and pages of text, financial tables, and donor lists?

Right, nobody reads those things anymore. Plenty of organizations of every size still produce those kinds of ponderous, year-in-review documents, but that doesn’t mean they’re getting read very much.

To make an annual report that people actually want to read, first consider three key factors for how content is being consumed now:

  • People want to be entertained, educated, and informed. They don’t want to be bored.

  • Thanks to mobile phones and social media, attention spans are short and getting shorter by the day.

  • Images and videos keep people engaged. Witness the rise of Instagram.

With those guidelines in mind, let’s dive into how your organization – be it a nonprofit or for-profit – can make its best annual report ever to your valued stakeholders.

Tell a Story

Make no mistake: Your annual report is a marketing tool. And key to any organization’s marketing right now is all about storytelling. If your annual report doesn’t tell a great story about your organization and the impact that it’s making, that’s a big missed opportunity.

The shift toward story-driven marketing explains why annual reports have moved away from simply listing everything accomplished in the past year. The purpose of the annual report today is to create a compelling narrative around your organization so that it inspires your supporters to take action (i.e. donate, volunteer, spread the word, buy! etc.). Focus on your accomplishments; don’t just list your activities.

To tell a powerful story, position your cause — not your organization — as the hero. What is the problem or the challenges that the hero must overcome? And how has your organization helped solve this problem?

Keep It Short

A good annual report doesn’t necessarily mean a long one. In fact, your audience would be better served if you made your report as short as possible while still conveying all of the important things you’ve accomplished in the past year.

As an example, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago does an excellent job of showing off its 2017 milestones in an annual report that clocks in at just 5 pages! With large images, colorful graphics, and a kid-friendly design, the report is short and sweet, and totally on-brand. It’s a fun, quick read that gets the job done really well.

Use Visuals

Nobody wants to wade through an ocean of text to learn about your organization. Today’s audience really responds to strong imagery. Photography allows you to create an immediate, emotional connection in a way that text just can’t do.

Tap into the power of visual storytelling by using a good mix of photos, charts, and infographics. Budget so that your organization can afford to hire a photographer and/or graphic designer, this will go a long way toward making your report look engaging and professional.

Charity Water has built its entire brand around visual storytelling. No surprise then that its annual report is a standout example of this. Even though its 2017 report (the most recent available) is on the longer side at 43 pages, it’s such a visual feast that you can’t help but flip through to the end.

Make It Personal

Storytelling forces you to get away from talking about your organization or cause as some kind of faceless, nameless entity. You want to make the story of your nonprofit as personal and human as possible. Make your audience care by putting names to faces and telling real stories about real people.

Your annual report may fulfill some annual obligation for accountability, but don’t waste this prime opportunity to shine the spotlight on individual constituents, staffers, donors, and outcomes. Kiva does an excellent job of showing how its microloans are improving the lives of recipients by highlighting specific success stories in its annual report. Meanwhile, Partners in Health combines powerful photography with mini-stories about the people it’s helping around the globe.

Put It Online

There’s no reason your annual report should be bound by print anymore. Leverage the interactivity of the web to tell your story through multimedia elements like videos, photo galleries, and music. If you have the resources in-house or can contract a web developer, your annual report can be a truly inspiring and engaging marketing piece.

Befitting an organization that encourages computer programming, Girls Who Code makes excellent use of the online environment to showcase its efforts to level the gender divide in computer science. Meanwhile, Best Friends Animal Society takes advantage of Adobe Spark and some super adorable pet photos to create an engaging interactive annual report.

Tableau Foundation breaks the mold of the year-in-review format by putting up and maintaining what it calls a “Living Annual Report.”

“Unlike traditional printed reports, our report, which updates weekly, allows anyone to interact with the data and ask follow-up questions,” the foundation points out. “We’re sharing our report here to show that foundations and nonprofits can move beyond the traditional annual report. With this approach, organizations can share the latest information and cut the time and costs of producing a traditional printed piece.”

Even if your nonprofit doesn’t have access to web programmers, at the very least, you should make a PDF version of your printed annual report available on your organization’s website.

In the age of Instagram, nonprofits need to rethink how they’re telling their story to their most important stakeholders. It’s not enough to put out the same annual report you’ve been doing for years. Think shorter, punchier, more image- and story-driven. Make it personal and human. Don’t just inform — inspire your audience! 

If your organization is interested in learning more about better communications, reach out today to S3 Solutions and learn more about making your business simpler, more efficient, and more effective.

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