Is Your Annual Report Brilliant, or Boring?


Annual reports get a bad rap, and sometimes deservedly so.   They’re often these massive, boring booklets filled with mind-numbing text and statistics.  It doesn’t have to be this way.

Remember, your annual report is for your donors.  As you put together your report, think of what your donors will want to read.

It’s possible to create an annual report that will dazzle your donors and not put them to sleep.  Here’s how.

Create a gratitude report

You may want to stop using the term annual report and start calling it a gratitude report instead.  Donors want to feel good about giving to your nonprofit.

Focus on thanking your donors for their role in helping you make a difference.   Here’s an example.  It’s on the longer side, but it will show you how you can stay donor-centered. Interval House – Gratitude Report

How are you making a difference?

Donors want to see results. They don’t want a bragfest.   Share specific accomplishments that show how you are making difference.   Phrase it like – Thanks to you, 85% of the students in our tutoring program are reading at their grade level or above.

Tell a story

Donors love to hear about the people they’re helping.  You can tell a story with words, a photo, or video. Share a success story. For example, Lisa, a third grader at Northwoods Elementary School, used to get butterflies in her stomach if she had to read out loud in class.  The words didn’t come easy.  Now after weekly tutoring sessions with Jen, one of our volunteer tutors, her reading is much better and she doesn’t dread reading time.

Make it visual

Your donors are busy and don’t have a lot time to read your report.  Engage them with some great photos. Photos can tell a story in an instant. Choose photos of people participating in an activity, such as Jen helping Lisa with her reading.

Use colorful charts or graphs to highlight your financials. This is a great way to keep it simple and easy to understand.  Sprinkle in quotes and short testimonials to help break up any text.

Be sure your report is readable.  Use at least a 12-point font and black type on a white background.

Write as if you’re having conversation with friend

Most of your donors don’t use words like underserved or at-risk, and neither should you.  Use everyday language such as – With your help, we found affordable housing for over 100 homeless families. Now they no longer have to live in a shelter, motel, or their cars, and have a place to call home.

Write in the second person and use a warm, friendly tone.  Of course, use you much more than we.

Can you leave it out?

Annual reports often include an introduction from the executive director or board chair. I find these can drone on and don’t entice you to read more. If you do include an introduction, make it brief, friendly, jargon-free, and filled with gratitude towards your donors for their support in helping you reach your goals.

Many annual reports also contain a donor list, which have pros and cons. Some donors want public recognition, but these lists take up space and most people aren’t going to read them.

You’ll have to decide if it makes sense to include one in print. You could include a list of donors at a certain level in your annual report and all your donors on your website. Whatever you decide, be sure to thank all your donors in this section and double and triple check that their names are spelled correctly.

Your donors are not the same

You may want to consider different types of annual reports for different donor groups.  You could send an oversized postcard with photos and infographics or a two-page report to most of your donors.

Your grant and corporate funders might want more detail, but not 20 pages. Aim for no more than four pages.

This Annual Reports Wiki includes some great examples including postcards and videos.

Annual reports can be time consuming to produce.  Create one your donors will take time to read.


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