Annual Reports: What to-do Best Practices


ANNUAL REPORTS, do you need one?…the answer is a big YES…but where to start? We did the research for you and consolidated a handy checklist of best practices, along with some case studies highlighting nonprofits doing it right — all around Annual Report planning in a 3–5 minute read. Don’t worry about downloading a 20+ page document, we don’t like to read that much either. We like free, quick, and easy ideas to get your wheels spinning.

Remember, if you need some extra hands to support, we’re here. CauseEngine helps organizations prioritize their efforts and focus on impact through storytelling to captivate your audiences — the perfect ingredient for this Annual Report recipe!

Speaking of recipes, grab those lunch leftovers and let’s dive in!

Who should get the Annual Report?

ALL of your stakeholders; Board Members and staff along with your donors — current and prospective. This comprehensive report should play to both audiences, and be used as a foundational marketing tool for your organization in the year ahead. This Annual Report IS YOUR STORY so tell it and use this tool to make your appeals easier than the year before.

Where do I even begin?

It may seem daunting especially if you’re low on operational support, but here’s a quick outline of what to include and consider in your planning process.

Outline of Best Practices:

1. Who’s your Audience? Both your Donors & Board Members want to know their money is being put to good use and towards your IMPACT. Be sure to paint the picture of all the good work you’re doing and WHY this work matters. Don’t focus on operational improvements (computers, staff, ink for that printer) instead, your content should be MISSION-DRIVEN accomplishments illustrating donor dollars translated to impact and mission outcomes.

You clothed, you fed, you empowered, you supported. Use this easy formula to clearly illustrate the transition from contributions to impact:

“X” donor dollars increased support to “Y” program which resulted in “Z” outcome.

Answer these questions; “How many people did you impact or inspire? Did you meet or exceed your goals? What is your organization’s return on investment?”

Your readers want to know the RESULTS and that their money FUELS your impact. This also entices donors to give AGAIN, which is what your primary goal should be! But remember, don’t brag. Be honest and humble operators of good. Share both the accomplishments and the shortcomings so you paint a transparent picture. Sometimes this can be a difficult task — talking about where your efforts fell short — but this is your opportunity to give donors and stakeholders a peak behind the curtain of real-life nonprofit operations. If you have questions about HOW to communicate shortcomings as an investment opportunity, give us a shout!

As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words” and in this case it’s worth thousands of dollars! Tell your story through imagery so donors and prospects are immersed in your mission. Team Rubicon does a hell of a job with this, making sure their impact is known and that you LIVE their mission through imagery.

2. Financials — explain them, don’t beat them to death. Keep it top-level, keep it clean and keep it visual. Let’s face it, numbers can be boring or misinterpreted. Spreadsheets can be soul-crushing. Use visuals to make topline achievements clear, showcase where revenue is coming from, how you dispersed revenue to impact programs and what your goals are going forward. Include a or summary to interpret any metrics and visuals. Keep it clear and digestible.

Financials and other numerical data doesn’t have to be stale. Use imagery and have fun with how you represent your data. Take a look at this fun example from AARP.

3. Hats off to your Donors — after all, they’re the fuel to your cause. Without donor investment, you’re mission doesn’t move. Make them the center of your story that all impacts resonate from. Make sure you’re giving them a big THANK YOU. We can’t stress this enough. Gratitude is key.

If you’re thanking by name — corporation, foundation or individuals — PLEASE ensure you’re fact-checking and name-checking. Keep your data updated and cross-checked so your effort to thank donors personally is accurate. Misspellings and misrepresentation is inexcusable and literally costs you money whether that’s a reprint of your Annual Report to fix a mistake or a loss in donor contributions from those not represented correctly.

4. Design — there are so many ways to make an impact on your readers. Be creative and have fun! Maybe your Annual Report this year includes a video, an interactive website report, a blog post or email with a downloadable PDF, a photo gallery slideshow highlighting key events. Whatever your format, make sure it’s pumped full of visually compelling imagery that supports your mission, highlights your past year’s activities and is visually compelling. There should be a pretty equal balance between visuals and text — this helps the eye, intrigues the reader, and makes a greater impression. Donors invest in people, the stories of those people and the impact they helped set in motion.

5. Call to Action — don’t forget to include your CTA. Yes, Annual Reports are just that, reports. BUT they are also sales and marketing tools for your the future so you MUST include a Call to Action for continued support. You need donors to return (something CauseEngine previously addressed with it’s “Donor Thank You Checklist and Toolkit”), learning more about your organization and getting involved in new ways. Identify what your future goals and needs are and SAY IT! Prompting continued investment is a primary goal of your Annual Report.

Simplicity at its finest. Smile Train’s 12 pages of impact, storytelling and imagery that concisely portrays how donor dollars translate to new lives and new smiles. It’s compelling and prompts a reach for your purse or wallet.

6. Above all, make sure your Annual Report reflects YOUR organization. Open up your organization to the masses. Let them see and feel your work. Make it personalized with clear narrative explaining who you are, what you stand for and the impact you create on a daily basis. You’re building trust with your audience and connecting on a human-level with them. Talk TO them, not AT them. Keep it fun, keep it light and keep it succinct.

To wrap it up — Annual Reports don’t have to be daunting, but they do need to be thorough, well-designed, and must tell your best story.

Some takeaway considerations:

  • Do your prior Annual Reports match your brand and impact or do they seem to fall short?
  • Are you having trouble telling your best story or graphically laying out visuals?

We’ve got expert copywriters, infographic wizards, and print layout gurus that can take your collateral from “just good enough” to breathtaking.

Reach out with your questions, frustrations or needs.

Remember, your Annual Report is a sales tool for the year to come. Are you investing enough in the most important donor collateral you’ll create this year? #WeGotaProForThat


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We’re a team of passionately radical professionals from diverse backgrounds all with something in common: We’re driven and ready to serve your mission.

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