Annual reports don’t have to be dry as dust. In fact, the most effective ones are not financial reports; they’re a story with the donor at the center. And they inspire action.
When you consider all the blood, sweat, tears and money that go into them, you want to assure they:
- Resonate with people emotionally.
- Paint a picture people want to jump into.
- Showcase the value of philanthropy and what it does to create change.
- Shine a light on how much the donor is needed.
- Include specific areas where donors can help.
Towards getting the biggest bang for your annual report buck, consider renaming them (or at least thinking about them) as Gratitude Reports. Make them all about your donors, how grateful you are to them for making your work possible, and how appreciative you are for all the accomplishments they enabled.
Rather than “2023 Annual Report,” consider a more donor-centered title like “Generosity Report,” “A Gratitude Report,” “The Year of the Donor,” “Impact Report.” or “You Make it Possible.” I’ve seen all of these; feel free to get creative and let your title guide your content!
Top 5 Gratitude Report Strategies
1. Tell a Story with the Donor at the Center
That’s who you’re writing the report for. It’s not for you, your boss or your program staff. It’s for those who will be inspired, by virtue of reading it, to learn more about you, get further engaged with you, get more passionately invested and, ultimately, sing your praises to others who may join them.
How do you grab attention and compel people to read the report?
Make it ALL about them!
First, tell emotionally resonant stories.
Second, take the opportunity to showcase different constituents and how they make a difference. For example, I used to include spotlights featuring donors I thought might resonate with a range of key constituencies (e.g., young parents; widows; retirees; teenagers; busy professionals, etc.). Their stories were sprinkled throughout the report as “Why I Care, Why I Give” features.
The goal is to deepen your relationship with current and potential donors. Use “you” and “your” in the copy.
- Your support built five new food pantries this year …
- Because of people like you, the museum is now open every fourth Sunday, free to the entire community…
- Youplanted 5,000 trees last year …
- 267 “family-to-family” volunteers helped resettle refugees in our community…
- With your support, more than 200 rescue pups were placed in loving homes…
- Thank you for being part of keeping public radio on the air…
- Not “We did this…” “Your gift helped us do that…” “Last year, [name of your organization] ensured that…”
Donors need to feel their philanthropy is critical to change they’d like to see in the world. If you simply paint a rosy picture of accomplishments, without crediting the donor, they’ll go elsewhere to feel needed.
2. Use Pictures Worth 1,000 Words
Studies show you have 3 seconds to grab someone’s attention; 8 seconds to keep it. People look at photos first! Use emotional photos that tell a success story:
- One person, headshot, big eyes looking at you
- Two people interacting
- Add a caption for story context – someone struggling/problem they couldn’t escape; the solution that made the difference; how donors stepped in to help; how the beneficiary’s life is different because you took action.
- High quality; not stock – photos of real people
- Graphics for financials
- Pull out quotes with small photos or images
Readers should be able to SEE how they can partner with you to make a difference.
3. Inspire Action
Consider the purpose of your report. With all the resources you put into it, it should have a targeted return on investment. First define your readers (e.g., current and potential donors; volunteers; foundations; community organizations; vendors; board members; staff). What kind of action(s) do you want your readers to take? Include areas of engagement like:
- Attend events
- Become a member
I also advocate inserting a remit envelope (tribute envelopes are my favorite) so it’s easy for people to give if they’re so moved. If you use a digital format, include donate buttons.
4. Cut the Crap
Interview your donors to find out what they most care about. It may not be what you think. I’ve found donors like photos and stories… testimonials… the way you depict your financials in a creative graphic display… being thanked. Consider omitting:
- Detailed financial reporting. Few donors will tell you they enjoyed reading your entire audited financials. Yet many nonprofits delay their reports for months awaiting this data. It’s much more important to get your report out promptly, shortly after your fiscal year ends. You’ve got the 990 for the financials!
- Information only you care about. No one cares about how the sausage got made. New website, new database, new computers… new inventory system… this is just blah, blah, blah to anyone other than you. Save this for employee newsletters, staff meetings and board announcements.
- Jargon. Insider talk is not donor-centered. Acronyms, terms of art (including “client,” “case management,” “culture of philanthropy”) and any technical or business language (e.g., empower, diversity, aspirational, integrated, and cross-departmental) have no place in a communications piece meant to make readers feel good and inspire action.
- Donor honor roll. This is a bit controversial, but I’m in favor of omitting this for a host of reasons: creating the list is very labor-intensive; it’s easy to make mistakes, resulting in ruffled feathers; some perceive listing by donation levels as elitist, and it takes up reams and reams of paper if you print your report. When I first did this, I was leery of donor complaints; didn’t hear a peep! And donations the following year didn’t decrease. Maybe try it? Or at least reduce the size of your listing to those who care the most (e.g., major and capital campaign donors). You can also profile a few individual donors; then thank all others “like them” who stepped up to the plate.
5. Take it Online
The traditional annual report model tended to run pages and pages, in booklet form. People thought it had to look sleek, so they used expensive, glossy paper and four-color printing. Some still do, and if that’s your choice it’s swell (as long as you make it a donor-centered, action-oriented piece). But consider your return on investment! What might you do to reduce print and mailing costs maximize ROI?
Consider taking your report online (digital only or digital + a small print run). Don’t just turn it into a boring PDF; not when you can take advantage of opportunities not available to you in print. Think about:
- Embedding a video of your work in action, a client’s story, or a testimonial from a donor talking about why they care, and why they give.
- Using links to connect with expanded versions of your stories, research, and useful gifts of content.
- Putting your annual report on your website. It’s more compelling than a mission statement (which was often written by committee).
- Animation for graphs/infographics. Just make sure it’s optimized for mobile.
- Using a dynamic table of contents so readers can easily navigate to what interests them most.
- Promoting your report via social networks, Google ads, and influencers. You can even post visual elements on Pinterest and Instagram.
What’s it all about?
For all the effort and resources you pour into your annual report, why not take some time this year to consider why you do it and what you’d like to get out of it. Avoid the temptation to just repeat what you did last year (unless you’re super happy with it). And if you’ve never created an annual report because you were afraid it wasn’t worth the investment, maybe it’s time to rethink.
An annual report should be a money-making endeavor! If at least a sub-set of those who receive it via mail or email, or see it on your website, social media or ads, don’t take the extra step of sending you money, you’ve either failed to (1) inspire; (2) make current and prospective donors feel good, or (3) make it easy to give to you.
Want to learn more?
Join me and Josh Kligman, CEO of Yearly, for a live, 15-minute crash course!
Want to get rid of your “dry as dust” annual report? Ready to invest in a report that will yield a positive return on investment(ROI)? Then you won’t want to miss Transform Annual Reports into Gratitude Reports for the Best ROI. Both Josh and I are passionate about helping you turn annual reporting into an incredible fundraising opportunity!
We’re so much on the same page that we decided to have a little chat on Tuesday, January 24th, at 11 a.m. PT/2:00 p.m. ET. Please join us! You’ll be able to submit questions during the live broadcast. And if you can’t attend live, be sure to register to get access to the recording.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash