3 min Read
November 22, 2016

Annual reports: worth it?

In 2010, I attempted to persuade nonprofits to stop producing costly annual reports in a blog called “The Annual Report is Dead: Long live the Annual Report!”. Years later, I still get calls from nonprofit leaders who continue to feel pressure to produce annual reports even though they can  drain resources and have limited or unclear return on investment (ROI).

Why I am skeptical about annual reports

Yes, it’s a best practice to publish your audited financials, and many charity watchdogs encourage or even mandate it. But that can be as simple as embedding a PDF on your website–just a few pages straight from your audit, with little fanfare and no design. So why produce something fancier?

For most nonprofit organizations, a well-written, well-designed annual report is a way to acknowledge and showcase progress to donors. Some reports provide insight into what’s to come in the year(s) ahead.  But to produce a good report, costs can be high: most of the mid-size or larger organizations regularly spend 5- or 6-figures on their annual report—not to mention copious hours devoted by staff to gather stories, collect photos, and get approvals. Couldn’t these resources be better invested?

That’s way too much time and money to spend on a document with a limited shelf-life unless you’re certain it’s really working, in my opinion.

Try this approach instead

Before you produce your next annual report, schedule a meeting with the staff who are most likely to use it. That’s probably your CEO, COO, and development team– especially the major gifts officers. It might even be your board chair and/or members of your development committee.

Here are four questions you might use to spark a productive conversation:

  • Are we all on the same page about what we hope the annual report will do for our organization? (probe: Do we agree it’s a major donor cultivation tool? A stewardship tool? A sexy coffee table credibility piece? A place to list donors so they feel acknowledged?) 

  • Besides mailing or emailing, how do you personally use the annual report in your work? (Probe: Is it used to facilitate meetings? Big asks with major donors? Look up past work? As a way to keep in touch with prospects?)

  • What specific feedback have you received about past reports? (Probe: Do people actually read it? Does it inspire the types of reactions and results we’d like– like increased donor retention?) 

  • Is there a less expensive or easier way we might get the same or even better results? (Brainstorm: Could you post a short video on your website, perhaps– or produce something with a longer shelf-life with inserts? Should you focus on more frequent, shorter updates to donors vs. investing deeply one annual report?) 

If you must produce an annual report

Personally, I’d rather see you invest tens of thousands of dollars on building the capacity of staff people, or on longer-shelf-life, higher value types of communications, wouldn’t you? So if you feel you must produce an annual report, consider dialing it back this year. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Keep it short and sweet. Financials plus a letter from your CEO, referencing high-level accomplishments and/or linking to your website, which can be updated in real time. 

  • Go digital. Maybe just an email with PDF financials this year? 

  • Create a container. A nicely designed pocket folder you can customize with inserts might give you better flexibility and a longer shelf-life. 

  • Consider a bi-annual report. If a fancy print piece still feels essential, consider moving to an every other year “progress report” to extend the shelf-life and reduce your time/money investment. 

  • Start tracking the ROI. My friend Kivi has some helpful suggestions on how you can measure the success of your annual report.