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Communicating Success: The Value of Annual Reports

Al Qasimi Foundation
January 02, 2017

Foundations and nonprofits are mission-driven organizations, and there is growing acknowledgement that communications play an important role in achieving their social change goals. While new practices and social media platforms often garner the most attention, it would be a mistake to underestimate the value of more traditional tools in effectively reaching stakeholders. Annual reports are one such tool.

Although a mainstay for many organizations in meeting regulatory obligations and demonstrating accountability to stakeholders, annual reports continue to evolve as well. No longer simply tools for documenting fiscal responsibility, annual reports are increasingly viewed as a means to showcase organizational missions and associated impacts, deepen stakeholder engagement, and galvanize future support. Here are five trends and key things to consider when summing up your organization’s work in 2016:

1- The Print/Digital Reporting Continuum

More organizations are experimenting with online annual reports (or materials to supplement their printed reports), as digital mediums can allow for greater creativity and flexibility in presenting information. Videos, photo galleries, podcasts, interviews, and links to interactive presentations are increasingly being employed. Depending on how they are structured, digital reporting may also allow stakeholders to explore and search for content that is most relevant to them. While going digital may offer potential cost savings and allow organizations to reach wider audiences, tradeoffs include the need for tech-savvy staff or consultants and ensuring key messages remain clear when information is presented in less linear formats. Printed reports may also still have a place for reaching certain stakeholders and donors who are less likely to engage with digital mediums. Accordingly, it remains critical for nonprofits and foundations to understand their capacity and annual report audiences when determining where to focus on the print/digital reporting continuum.

2- Accomplishments vs. Activities

Activities may be easy to summarize, but they are rarely compelling. Nonprofits and foundations that invest the time to identify, reflect on, and honestly communicate their accomplishments in meaningful ways stand a greater chance of energizing stakeholders and garnering their continued engagement. For organizations willing to take a risk, it may also be worthwhile to consider sharing lessons learned or other challenges encountered over the past year. Such openness can help build credibility and demonstrate an organization’s ability to be responsive as well as its commitment to improvement. It can also help stakeholders better understand the work yet to be done in creating the desired social changes an organization seeks to achieve.

3- Mission vs. Administration

The yearly milestones and accomplishments of nonprofits and foundations can take many forms, and determining annual report content requires an understanding of your intended audiences. As a general rule, it’s often best to focus on mission-related accomplishments and leave administrative ones for board reports. Nonprofits may also want to consider alternatives for thanking donors if the list would comprise a significant portion of the final report content. Donor appreciation can take many forms throughout the year, and if done well, will continue to build relationships and secure future investments from this important stakeholder group. In addition, consider including calls to action toward the end of your report. Mission-focused annual reports should inspire, and it would be a missed opportunity to not include how inspired stakeholders can actively support your organization’s work as it champions for social change.

4- Show vs. Tell

If a picture is usually worth a thousand words, it might be worth double in an annual report. Many studies have shown the powerful impact visuals can have on capturing people’s attention and making lasting (memorable) impressions. However, finding the right balance between text—which can communicate a large amount of specific information—and images—which help stakeholders connect emotionally and conceptually to your work and mission—can be tricky. Tools like infographics have become popular because they turn complex information into manageable and compelling visuals, but to do well they require planning. As you assemble content, consider the best way to present each piece of information and identify opportunities for visually showing your mission and accomplishments. Doing this early helps with the design process and ensures information will ultimately be presented in ways that maximize potential impacts. In addition, don’t treat photo captions and pull-out text as afterthoughts. These might be the only things stakeholders read if they are skimming your report, so it’s critical to be intentional on how these are used to summarize and capture your key messages. 

5- Storytelling vs. Reporting

Numbers, statistics, and projections are staple annual report content, and they won’t disappear any time soon. Although they convey information, they seldom connect at a personal level with annual report audiences. To address this gap, storytelling elements are increasingly being incorporated into annual reports. Direct quotes, first-person narratives, interviews with beneficiaries, and case study highlights are simple, effective ways to immediately make an organization’s work (and impact) more personal, tangible, and compelling. Kimberlee Roth, a guest blogger for, suggests organizations “think of stories as illustrations of your work—a neon highlighter, your mission in action.” Who and what deserves a neon highlighter in your annual report?