The Nonprofit Annual Report: How to tell your nonprofit’s story in an epic annual report

Resolved to write your Annual Report? Check.

Have some story ideas and points to cover? Check.

Now what?

Over the years, I’ve helped a number of nonprofits write, design, and publish their Annual Reports. At this point, I have the process down pretty well.

At the outset of any Annual Report project, I always ask my clients the same set of questions. The answers to these questions give each Annual Report shape and direction, making it easier to accomplish the otherwise-intimidating task at hand.

Today I’m taking you through the four most important questions you need to answer before starting your nonprofit’s Annual Report.


Four key questions you need to answer before writing your nonprofit’s Annual Report to give it shape, direction, and impact.

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


1. Who are your audiences?

There’s a reason I keep harping on this one. Without knowing who you’re talking to, it’s hard to make sure your audiences will hear the right thing. After all, your Annual Report is part of a dialogue: you present information to meet your audiences’ needs. That means that to identify those needs, you need to properly identify your audiences.

But there’s a catch — your one Annual Report will be written for multiple audiences.

It can be done! Here are a few ideas:

  • Write a fully detailed report for your most ardent supporters, then go back and highlight key words and ideas for your more casual skimmers. You can use bold text, sidebars, call-outs, and other layout techniques for these highlights.
  • Create a set of images and infographics for use on social media that convey the essence of your story, then link readers to your full report so they can get the rest of the story.
  • If your audiences prefer print format but you don’t have the funds to mail full reports, consider producing a series of companion postcards or brochures. Postcards can remind people to check out the report online, while brochures can communicate key messages from your full report — both for a fraction of the print and postage costs.


2. How will you distribute the Annual Report?

How will you be distributing your annual report? Your chosen medium will influence the way you tell your story, so it’s good to know where the report is going from the beginning.

We’re spoiled for choice, and each medium has its pros and cons:


Pros: Convenience! PDFs are free to create, easy to post or send, and people are pretty comfortable with them.

Cons: Some web browsers mess with displays, so you don’t have full control over the report’s appearance (Chrome doesn’t allow pages to be shown side-by-side, for example). Because of their ubiquity, PDFs don’t quite have the same gravitas as print; they’re easy to click away and forget.


Pros: A printed report is more likely to be read, and possibly more than once; an Annual Report sitting on a supporter’s kitchen table reminds them of your work every time they pass by. Print is also great if your audiences are less tech-savvy and don’t feel comfortable finding and reading a report online. And for some reason, printing makes anything feel more official.

Cons: Expense! Printing — especially high-quality printing — gets expensive fast. And then what do you do with them? Mailing reports to donors and supporters is also pricey, while handing them out in-person limits your reach. There’s also the issue of paper waste; environmental nonprofits in particular might feel a bit awkward taking down a forest to explain how they’re saving the environment (though there are some great recycled and FSC-certified paper options).


Pros: Video, interactive data visualization, and other interpretations of your report can be memorable and, if electronic, highly shareable online. Experiencing your work in a new way — and possibly interacting with data or stories directly — allows your supporters to become part of the story.

Cons: Depending on your choice of specific format, multimedia reports can get expensive and complex, with a possible need for technical expertise on staff or through an outside contractor.

Interpretive dance

Pros: Interpretive dance is very memorable and clearly demonstrates your commitment to the cause.

Cons: Unless it’s filmed and distributed (see Multimedia above), replicability is a concern. There’s also no guarantee that audiences will interpret your interpretation correctly; the written word wins here because you can literally spell it out for them.


3. What is your theme?

I generally recommend that nonprofits choose a theme for their Annual Report. A theme serves as a storytelling device to draw your points together into a single, memorable idea.

You can make your theme implicit or explicit. An implicit theme colors each story with the same feeling or message, unifying the report and using repetition to reinforce an idea in your readers’ minds. An explicit theme does the same thing, except the specific thematic word is used (and reused) throughout the report.

Your theme should reflect the key message you’re trying to convey. That could be one of impact, transition, growth, or reflection — what is the one thing you want your audiences to think about your nonprofit’s year?


4. What story are you trying to tell?

Finally it’s time to start putting things together. You’ll want to choose stories and imagery that support your theme.

For example, if your nonprofit experienced a lot of growth in the last year, you’ll want to show exactly how your organization has grown. That could include profiles of new staff, new areas of work, and major accomplishments that expanded your influence. While illustrating your stories, your report’s imagery should also reflect growth, evoking feelings of positivity, impact, and discovery.

As you shape your narrative around a theme, consider how your pieces fit together to tell the larger story. Remember that narrative arc from part one of this series? In addition to shaping the narrative of each individual article, the arc can also guide article placement within the overall Annual Report:

  • Exposition: The Letter from the Board and Letter from Management both set the stage, couching the year’s major goals and accomplishments in the overall theme of the report.
  • Conflict: What problem did you try to solve? This could be the overarching problem your organization addresses (check your mission and vision statements), or something more specific to the year.
  • Rising action: What did you do? Describe the series of actions you took to solve the problem at hand. If possible, try to arrange them in order of increasing impact. (Parts three and four of this series will go into compelling ways you can illustrate these actions.)
  • Climax: Profile the biggest, most influential event of the year. How did it rise above all others in seeking change? What made it successful?
  • Falling action: What results are you seeing as a result of your work? This is the place for your celebrations, positive outcomes, and stories of hope.
  • Resolution: Now what? You just treated your audience to stories of good things you’ve brought to the world. What does the next step look like? And more importantly, how can they help? Your biggest call to action should go here. If you print financial data and donor lists, consider ways you can incorporate them into your call to action — they donated; you should too!


Check out the rest of the Nonprofit Annual Report series:


Need a little help?

Nonprofit Annual Reports are actually one of my favorite types of projects: an organization’s energy, impact, and spirit are encapsulated in a report that can serve them for years to come.

Of course, that also means the stakes are high. If your organization would like a little help with your Annual Report this year, check out what I have to offer and drop me a line.


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