Winning with the Annual Report
Late December is the busiest time of year for our P.O. Box. It seems each day brings a combination of year end appeals and annual reports from charities we’ve interacted with over the past 7 years. I confess that some of these go into the recycling bin unopened. Catalyst doesn’t fund according to the annual calendar so year end donation requests, particularly from organizations we haven’t connected with in a few years are easily dismissed. What’s much more interesting to me are the annual reports; particularly as I prepare our own internal review of the year. I know how deeply many leaders agonize over the content, layout, and presentation of the annual report. I can appreciate the importance of communicating clearly and with accountability to stakeholders, and the responsibility to present something that is both truly accurate and hopefully inspiring. Here are a few thoughts from an interested amateur on what I appreciate in these pieces. 1. Theme: Make it clear to me, even on the envelope if possible, what you consider to be the single most significant impression you want me to take from your report. I can dig for the details that are of interest to me, but I want you to provide the general sense of things from the start. I’m much more likely to read the whole thing if I can identify the general sense of things at the outset. 2. Honesty: Every year isn’t great. Quite often things don’t go according to plan and there are challenges, failures, and transitions that affect progress. I know that so don’t try to hide it. I respect and appreciate a charity that acknowledges the simple reality that every effort isn’t a roaring success and tells me directly when there have been struggles and what is being done to address them.An over abundance of “glory stories” raises my suspicions. 3. Accuracy: There is no excuse for numbers that don’t add up. These should be triple checked by multiple people before they are sent out. While many donors may pay little attention to these charts and lists usually buried on the final pages of the report, those who do look at them will probably be unforgiving if they find errors. This goes for program statistics and impact measurements as well as finances. 4. Visuals: To be honest, this is just about the lowest priority for me when I open your report, but I know I’m the exception. Choosing images and layout carefully, ensuring they are printed with quality, and using your own pictures instead of stock photos whenever possible will make a difference to a lot of readers. It is often worthwhile to have this done professionally if you don’t have the internal capability to get the look right. 5. Story: “Whoever tells the best stories wins” is an adage to remember. Whether you use a single story throughout the report or several shorter ones is open for discussion, ensuring that the narrative is compelling, focused on the impact of your work particularly, and relatable for your audience is not. Tell me how my donation has (or can) make a difference in the real life of a specific person, with their permission of course, is essential. It doesn’t have to be a recipient of your service: I’ve read great reports that featured stories of staff, volunteers, and donors too. 6. Jargon: You understand your organization in ways that your donors just don’t. You also invest a lot of time in crafting the messaging and presentation of this report. That can make you vulnerable to seeing things differently than your audience. You should always have a few trusted, brutally honest, outsiders review the report before it is sent to print. You may be assuming knowledge, clarity, or understanding that they will tell you needs improvement. They can also catch potentially embarrassing typos, double entendres, and awkward phrasing that you might miss. 7. Surprise: My favourite university professor taught me that Attention = Contrast. Your donors are probably receiving several fairly similar annual reports from charities they have supported. What is different enough about yours to get their attention? I give credit to Wellspring Foundation for including a recipe for an African Chicken Peanut Stew in their latest mailing. I’ll be making it next week and thinking of them when I do. The Annual Report can be a document of celebration both for those preparing it and those who receive it. What are you doing to ensure that yours gets read before it gets recycled?