As we come to the end of the year there are many “wrap-up” issues that begin niggling at the edges of our organisational to-do lists. One of these should be the production of the Annual Report early in the year.

For many non-profit organisations the dual constraints of critically limited budgets and overloaded staff portfolios usually shifts the production of an annual report to a low position on the strategic priorities list. After all, the resources required to create an annual report could be used for many other more tangible needs. However, to not produce an annual report is to miss out on a major opportunity for telling the story of your organisation and its accomplishments to a range of audiences. Or to use marketing language – it is a missed opportunity to build and support your brand.

A well-designed Annual Report is so much more than a list of your accomplishments for the year. It is the means by which you can inspire new donors, motivate current ones, encourage beneficiaries, enthuse employees and pay tribute to partner organisations. Annual Reports are golden opportunities to describe what you are doing, how well you are doing it and the difference that your organisation makes in the world.

But in order to use your Annual Report to do all of the above there may have to be some re-thinking about what should be included in the report and what it should look like. For example:

  • Is your Annual Report merely a published list of the things that have happened in your organisation over the past year that is used primarily as a “memory” tool for your organisation in the years to come? Or is it a confident communication instrument that advertises who you are, underlines your value and demonstrates the close relationship between your accomplishments and your mission, your success and your vision?
  • Do you tell your readers about how you raised money? Or do you tell your readers what you did with the money you raised? non-profits are expected to raise funds for their activities. Consequently this shouldn’t be a priority highlight. When reporting on fundraising the emphasis should be on how the money was used, not the detail of how it was raised. This does not mean that fundraising events, donors and sponsors should not be mentioned, but rather that it be done in ways that tie the donor(s) with the activities that their money has supported rather than seeing fundraising as a solitary and separate activity.
  • Do you present general summaries of your work? Or do you tell real stories about real people?
  • Do you have masses of tables and numerical comparisons? Or do you humanise your statistics with individual profiles and examples from “the field”?
  • Do you compile your Annual Report by putting together short pieces about the past year written in a variety of forms and tones from each individual programme convenor, supervisor or departmental head? Or do you choose a thematic focus for the year and write a powerful, easily readable narrative that links and integrates your accomplishments, strategies and outcomes into a page-turner?
  • Are your financial statements explained in a paragraph or two of plain language? Not everyone is able to read a set of complex financial statements. A simple short narrative that explains the source, expenditure, and investment of your funds and, if necessary, the reasons for a surplus or deficit will ensure that everyone who reads your report is able to get an accurate snapshot of your financial status.
  • Does the content of your Annual Report tell people things about your organisation and its accomplishments that would not generally be known, or is it an inventory of activities? As important as internal activities may be to you e.g. a successful two-day strategic planning session with all staff is of little interest to people outside your organisation. Your donors, your board, and other professional partners would expect you to engage in planning activities. It doesn’t have to be a paragraph in your annual report.
  • Instead talk about your programmes and their benefit to individuals, groups, or other organisations. Tell the personal stories. Illustrate your value in the communities that you serve.
  • Is your report professionally designed and printed? Do not make the mistake of thinking that a couple of photocopied pages stapled to your financial audit sends the message that you are a frugal organisation that doesn’t spend money frivolously. Your organisation is more likely to be seen as an attractive investment if you publish a modest, appealing and professional annual report. It is the difference between presenting your organisation as one that is in need as opposed to one that successfully provides solutions to need.
  • It is said that a picture paints a thousand words. Are the photographs and illustrations in your Annual Report chosen carefully to support the overall message and theme of your communication? Are you using captions to their full advantage? Photograph captions should not only state who or what is in the photograph but can be used to link images to accomplishments and future plans. Remember the photographs and their captions are frequently the only parts of the report that people will read. Make sure they count.
  • Do you make it easy for your donor or reader to help you? If you have used your Annual Report as a successful tool to inspire support, tell people how they can help. Give them information on how to contact you, your website address, a telephone number, an easy option to sign up to a mailing list, access to a discussion group etc. Your Annual Report is certainly not an appeal – but it should have clear directions as to where interested people can go to find out more, get involved or even just talk to someone.
  • Does the letter from your executive director or chairperson of the board invite the reader to be part of your organisation? Do they talk about the personal experiences and/or reasons why they are part of your organisation? People are encouraged to support, join or volunteer for an organisation because other people’s experiences resonate with something inside them. Use your director or chairperson’s letter as an opportunity for readers to put the human touch to the work that you do.
  • Are you creative about how you publish your Annual Report? Do you have print copies? Is it available on-line? Do you include everyone with whom your organisation has contact in the distribution list? Is it available in a variety of forms e.g. the on-line versions could package the report in sections designated by programme so that someone could look at something that might be of particular interest to him or her without having to download the entire report. Are some of your pictures or illustrations available as screensavers?

Even though non-profit organisations are not required to produce an annual report there is enormous value in producing one. A professionally presented, well-designed Annual Report can be a relatively inexpensive but nonetheless far-reaching showcase for your organisation and the people who benefit from your activities.

Author: Gillian Mitchell, Associate at Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement.