The Nonprofit Annual Report: How to look to the future through your year in review

Believe it or not, your 2016 Annual Report isn’t about 2016. It’s about 2017, 2018, 2019, and all the years to come. Your annual report is just a snapshot of an ever-changing organization; one that continues to move forward despite the change in calendar year. Today I’ll show you how to plan for the future through your year in review.

This is part three of the Nonprofit Annual Report series. If you missed the earlier parts, you can find them here:


Balance past and future in your nonprofit annual report - here's how!

Psst – Are you on Pinterest? You know what to do!


Let’s start off today by taking a step back.

The ultimate goal of a nonprofit annual report is to support next year’s funding by illustrating last year’s impact.

Celebrating your success and completing legally mandated financial reporting are both nice, but let’s be honest — future funding is a consideration too.

That’s why your annual report needs to answer two questions:

  1. Where have you been?
  2. Where are you going?


Where have you been?

Obviously last year’s retrospective should… retrospect.

Start by taking a trip down memory lane and listing all of last year’s project work, public events, one-on-one interactions — anything that might help you paint a picture of your year.

List in hand, you’ll need to make some decisions. Look through your list and decide:

  • Which pieces show the most impact?
  • Which capture your nonprofit’s spirit?
  • Which stories were truly unique to this year?

As you look through the list of potential items to feature, you may realize that the stories you want to tell aren’t necessarily your biggest and boldest. That’s totally fine! If you picture your year as a movie, you’ll want to balance action scenes with intimate profiles; major game-changers with smaller one-on-one impacts.

Stories have most impact when you make them relatable to your audiences. In the case of your nonprofit annual report, profiles of beneficiaries, partnerships, and statistics can make your sweeping work seem more personal. Broad, general stories can seem a bit vague:

“We helped a lot of people this year.”

Instead, specific impacts and details can be far more compelling:

“This year we gave shelter to 20 low-income families in the Oakland area.”

Logistics-wise, try to choose stories for which you have pictures or other visual media — visual aids aren’t 100% necessary, but they do make stories much easier to tell.


Where are you going?

I like to cheat a little on annual reports by including a bit of the current year to offer a hint at the organization’s future trajectory. After all, project work rarely lines up perfectly with the calendar year; actual starts and stops are more like ragged edges. And besides, no one is going to call you out for — gasp — openly acknowledging that your 2016 annual report was actually written in 2017.

Because the goal of your nonprofit’s annual report is to support next year’s fundraising, you’ll need to think about how it relates to your future work. So let me add two more questions to my earlier list:

  • What stories do your audiences want to hear?
  • Which ones represent the sort of work you want to do in the future?

In other words, where do you and your fundraising audiences want to go next?

For your audiences, think about what they want to see. What kinds of outcomes are your funders and donors most interested in? How about awareness audiences like media outlets and government decision-makers? What can you show to them as proof of your good work? Which stories “click” the most?

Of course, you get a say in which stories you want to see too, and your choices should mirror your strategic plans. After all, it would be a little weird to feature a type of project you never plan (or want) to do again. Unless you’re acknowledging a planned end to an area of work, the featured projects should be representative of Future You.


Looking for more of the Nonprofit Annual Report series?


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