Guest post by Ann Fellman, Chief Marketing Officer at Bloomerang
Every year, nonprofits are required to file Form 990 with the IRS to provide financial information and maintain tax-exempt status. These documents are publicly available online, but they only provide the bare bones of your organization’s financial status. That’s why many nonprofits also choose to create their own annual report to provide more context for supporters.
A well-designed annual report will not only recount your nonprofit’s successes, challenges, and progress made through the past year. It can also serve as a crucial audience outreach tool to deepen supporter relationships and lay the groundwork for continued engagement.
In this guide, we’ll share five best practices for designing an effective annual report that serves your marketing goals:
- Choose an engaging annual report format.
- Make your report supporter-centric.
- Highlight mission and program updates.
- Tell stories through the report.
- Communicate transparently with supporters.
According to Bloomerang’s donor management guide, offering your annual report on your website “helps potential new supporters understand what your organization is all about.” Your report can be an effective stepping stone to greater audience engagement.
1. Choose an engaging annual report format.
Traditionally, annual reports have been straightforward documents or information packets recapping a few main takeaways and financial data from the year. However, with the rise of innovative online platforms and digital-first fundraising strategies, there are now a variety of multimedia platforms to choose from that allow nonprofits to create robust, intriguing annual reports.
Find a design platform that allows you to choose a unique digital report format, including:
- Interactive PDF. Classic annual reports are usually booklets with pages describing your programs, campaigns, and financial data from the year. Many organizations take this report format and digitize it into a PDF version, then link to it on their site. This format works well if your supporters usually enjoy the book version of your report. It will allow you to send the full report to those who want the entire version printed, then send postcards or short mailers informing other supporters to visit your website to see the whole report by giving them a web address or QR code to access it.
- Video. Some organizations choose to create a video annual report to engage their supporters. With video, you have the opportunity to show supporters actual footage of your programming or fundraisers so they can see exactly what you’ve accomplished rather than just read about it. Make sure annual report videos are high quality, with professional editing, camera work, and lighting.
- Web page. You can also create a special web page to display your annual report in a digital format. For example, Habitat for Humanity’s 2021 annual report is showcased in a narrative format on a web page. The page includes drawings and written statements from children who live in homes created with Habitat’s help. This is a compelling way to respect beneficiaries’ privacy while still allowing them to tell their story in their own words.
- Dashboard. Some organizations, like The Tableau Foundation, leverage a dashboard on their website rather than a traditional annual report format. This provides regularly updated information, keeping supporters up to date weekly instead of annually. The format offers an increased level of visibility and transparency that many supporters appreciate.
Creating an engaging annual report starts with choosing the right software solution to design and distribute the document.
No matter which format you choose for your annual report, make sure you use a platform that allows you to create an accessible resource. For example, your videos should include closed captions, subtitles in various languages, and transcripts of the information provided so that everyone can interpret the information.
2. Make your report supporter-centric.
To leverage your annual report as a truly effective marketing tool, keep the focus on your supporters and community members. Use your report as an opportunity to highlight their accomplishments and generosity and thank them for their continued support.
Keep the following audiences in mind when developing your annual report:
- Grant funders
- Foundations that support your nonprofit
- Corporate partners
Use your donor management system and volunteer management software to research these audience members and understand their preferences. For example, some audiences may prefer to see your full annual report PDF while others would appreciate a quick snapshot of the main takeaways.
Use the “You” test to ensure your focus stays on your audience. Preferably, your annual report should include twice as many “you” words as “we” words. This helps keep the primary focus on the positive impact that supporter involvement has had on your mission.
3. Highlight mission and program updates.
Your nonprofit’s annual report is your opportunity to provide context for your organization’s decisions. Some organizations simply highlight key finances, which undoubtedly is an important aspect of your report. But for a more successful marketing campaign, put the numbers in context.
For instance, let’s say you have some overhead expenses associated with the launch of your organization’s latest program. If you only show your supporters the financial numbers, they may not see the impact of those funds and the growth of your initiatives as a result of strategic investments.
To avoid this outcome, provide program updates to communicate the impact of your expenses. If you have any ongoing campaigns, such as online fundraising efforts or a major capital campaign, you should also tell supporters about the progress you’ve made on those as well. Especially for long-term fundraising campaigns, informing supporters about progress made will help you maintain engagement over time and increase their support.
4. Tell stories through the report.
One of your primary marketing goals is to help supporters remember your organization and to keep you in mind for future campaigns. Stories are a great way to do this since they tend to be much more memorable than facts alone. When you’re discussing your progress with supporters, paint a compelling picture of your efforts using real stories from the past year.
If you tell stories on other platforms, like your newsletter and social media posts, reuse the best ones in your annual report. Tell stories about the ways your programming has improved the lives of others and made a difference in the community.
Of course, you should also make sure that these stories are well-written and tailored to your audience. Here are some tips to write an effective story for your report:
- Keep beneficiaries at the center. The protagonists of your stories should be a specific supporter who helped make an impact or a constituent who received assistance from your nonprofit. For instance, you might write your story with your hero as the donor who contributed the necessary funds for a program, the volunteer who made the program possible, or your constituent who worked hard to get back on their feet.
- Keep your stories simple. Complex storylines that are difficult to follow will lose your audience. However, a simple story with one primary hero and an easy-to-understand plot will be more likely to hold readers’ attention.
- End with impact. Tell your story with the end in mind. This should be the point that captures the readers’ hearts and feelings. Conclude your story with one last quote from a beneficiary or an inspiring call to action that encourages readers to get involved with your ongoing campaigns.
As you incorporate storytelling into your annual report, make sure that you use techniques that are cohesive with your other web design and social media strategies. For example, you should use the same tone of voice and messaging, whether upbeat, friendly, casual, formal, or serious. Consistency across marketing channels helps reinforce your message and promote your brand image.
5. Communicate transparently with supporters.
Your annual report is an opportunity to celebrate your nonprofit’s successes from the year. However, be careful not to overly emphasize your successes while neglecting your challenges. Instead, remain transparent with your supporters about both the good and the bad.
You might feel hesitant to include any lows in your annual report for fear of pushing supporters away. However, providing transparency can actually increase your supporters’ respect for your organization and show them that you’re willing to take accountability and grow when needed.
If there are some challenges and issues you’d like to address in your annual report, take these two steps to provide the necessary context:
- Explain any challenges. Tell supporters exactly what happened in clear terms. Explaining the context of the issue will help you gain their trust right off the bat and invite supporters to view your thought process.
- Discuss the remedy. This should be a more substantial section than the first step. Tell supporters how you’ll address the problem at hand and encourage them to be a part of the solution.
For example, perhaps your donor retention numbers aren’t as high as you were expecting. Maybe external factors like economic challenges in your local community contributed to falling giving capacity across your supporter base.
Let supporters know that to address this issue in the coming year, you’ll refocus your community-building efforts by asking supporters for feedback and incorporating their input into your outreach strategies.
Explaining the solution shows supporters that you won’t just turn a blind eye to issues, but will take action to improve your organization for the future continuously.
Nonprofit annual reports can be powerful online marketing tools. They provide a level of transparency and a bird’s eye view of your programming from the past year, showing supporters the accomplishments and opportunities of the last year.
With these tips, you can ensure you’re making the most of every supporter engagement opportunity by developing an engaging, accessible, informative report.
About the Author: As the Chief Marketing Officer at Bloomerang, Ann Fellman is responsible for the company’s overall thought leadership, brand, marketing, and community outreach programs that work to strengthen relationships with customers and the broader nonprofit community. Ann brings with her more than 24 years of experience in business-to-business (B2B) marketing in the technology industry, including time spent working at a nonprofit organization.