How to Write an Excellent Nonprofit Annual Report

Kick Annual Report Fear

Annual report from Save the Children
This online annual report from Save the Children focuses on results and how donors have made them possible.

Although nonprofits do report to the IRS with their annual 990s, they also know that they should produce a publication that presents their accomplishments to their supporters and the general public.

An annual report can help you demonstrate your accomplishments to current and future donors, cultivate new partnerships and give recognition to important people.

However, nonprofits often struggle with what should be included in an annual report and what should be left out.

Annual reports have also changed significantly over time.

Once rather ponderous brochures written in language that only insiders could understand, annual reports now speak to a broader group of people and use easy to comprehend text plus many more photos and infographics.

Annual reports come in all formats, sizes, and presentations. Many are posted on websites rather than printed and mailed. An annual report could be a video, a postcard, or a slide show. Many annual reports become the nonprofit’s case for support, to frame a fundraising campaign.

Annual reports might not even be called that.  They might be a “report to our community” or a “call to action.” They often use themes to organize the information, such as “a day in the life of” or “transformation.”

The key to a successful annual report today may be simply using your imagination, hunting out many examples from charities similar to yours, and figuring out what your audience enjoys.

A younger audience will love something digital while an older donor pool might prefer a more traditional approach.

The following ten tips will help you develop an excellent nonprofit annual report, whether you stick to the tried and true or push the boundaries of all the media available to you.

1.  Focus on accomplishments, not activities.

Donors want to know what you did, but more importantly, they want to know why you did it.

What were the results? Why did you spend your time and money the way you did? What difference did it make?

Connect the everyday activities of your organization to your mission statement. Don’t assume that readers will automatically understand how your activities help you achieve your mission. Connect the dots for them.

2.  Stop talking about internal stuff.

Getting a high-speed internet connection in the office and new accounting software may be big accomplishments from where you sit at your desk, but they have nothing to do with your mission.

Inspire donors with accomplishments related to your mission in your annual report and leave all the administrative items for your report to your board.

3.  Don’t brag about your fundraising accomplishments.

Donors expect you to raise money, but fundraising achievements should not be celebrated in your annual report on the same level as your mission-related results.

Readers would rather know about what you did with the money than how you raised it. While it is appropriate to include information on how well your fundraising efforts are going, it is best to place this information in the financial section of your report, rather than front and center.

4.​  Include photos in the annual report.

Yes, photos are worth a thousand words.

Many of the people reading your annual report will not read it. So, show them what you have been doing with the liberal use of photos. These pictures should show the people or animals that you help, not your board members, CEO, or major donors. Today’s donors expect a story from you, and that story can be told even better with great photos.

Invest in a good digital camera, or spend some money on a professional photographer.  It is also fine to use stock photography if you are on a tight budget, as long as you choose those images carefully. Type 'royalty free stock photos' in your favorite search engine, and you will find numerous sites.

Your photos should feature faces more than things.

For some ideas about how to use photos in your report, see 14 Examples of Great Photo Usage in Nonprofit Annual Reports.

5.  Write captions that tell your story.

Now that you have got them looking at the photos tell a story with your captions. Don’t just state what’s in the picture. Connect the photo to an accomplishment.

If people read nothing but the captions in your annual report, they should still get a sense for the good work you did last year.

6.  Include personal profiles.

Donors love real stories about real people. General summaries of your work will put your donors to sleep.

Explain what you have accomplished overall, and then humanize your statistics with some personal profiles. Highlight how your work helped a particular individual. Share a volunteer’s story of how they made a positive difference.

7.  Explain your financials.

Many of your donors will not know how to read a financial statement or won’t take the time to read it. Include a paragraph or two that explains in plain English what the tables say. Try putting some of that information into an infographic. The very act of designing an infographic forces you to simplify and simplify some more. Text about numbers makes people’s eyes glaze over. An infographic grabs their attention, and these figures will likely be remembered.

What numbers should you include? How about where does your money comes from and how you spend it? How many people did you reach? What are your primary fundraising strategies? Did you create any cost-savings tactics this year?

8.  If you need more space for photos and infographics, trim the donor lists in the annual report.

Nonprofits need to strike a balance between using the space in their annual report to discuss their accomplishments and using it to recognize donors.

If as much as half of your annual report is donor lists, you should consider scaling the lists back to make more room for text and photos. Smaller donors can be recognized in other ways such as lists in newsletters. Also consider honoring donors in other ways, such as calling them out on social media or posting photos of them after an event.

9.  Triple-check your donor lists.

There’s no better way to sabotage a future donation than to spell the donor’s name wrong in your annual report. If you are uncertain about a name, don’t guess. Check it with the donor.

Also, carefully check the names of government agencies and foundations that gave you grants. The names people call these organizations in conversation are often short-hand for the full legal names that belong in your annual report.

10.  Tell donors how they can help.

Never leave a potential supporter hanging, wondering how they can help you. Once you have inspired your readers with the good works in your annual report, conclude by telling them how they can help you do more.

How can they support you with their money or time? Ask them to volunteer. Remind them of planned giving options. Tell them about gifts of stock. Steer them to ways to use their credit card to donate. Be clear about the best ways to help.