Why You Should Stop Saying “Annual Report” (And What to Call it Instead)
Chances are, your nonprofit issues an annual report. It’s usually a run-down of what you’ve accomplished over the year. You cover what you’ve raised, what you’ve spent, and how you’ve made an impact. They’re valuable publications! Your donors and community appreciate being kept in the loop, and potential donors love transparency when they look for an organization to support.
But, while the report itself is important, we’ll try to convince you to avoid the phrase “annual report.” First, we’ll lay out our reasons; then we’ll give you alternatives that we believe are much more effective.
Why you should stop calling your annual report an “Annual Report”
Everybody calls them “Annual Reports,” right? Well, yes… but it might not be the best term. Here’s why.
You want to avoid “Corporate Speak.”
Clearly, you want your organization to have a professional image. However, you can achieve professionalism without a cold or impersonal corporate image! Nonprofits are all about connecting people and resources to achieve results, and a more personal image will make it easier for donors to develop a personal rapport with your organization.
For-profits present “Annual Reports” to their stakeholders. Is that the kind of relationship you want to establish with your donors and supporters? We didn’t think so!
It makes presenting earnings, charts, and graphs seem dry.
It is necessary to communicate macro-level results, such as overall earnings, expenses, and other data. It’s important information if you want donors to be informed! But you should report this in as visual a manner as possible, and you shouldn’t let this data take over your report. The term “Annual Report” sets an expectation in readers’ heads; they expect dry, emotionless data. To combat that, change the name of your report and focus on combining statistics and reporting with stories and impact reports.
Your donors need more.
Donors do care about numbers — to an extent. Of course, they want to know their donations were well-spent! They want to see that donations aren’t wasted on excessive administrative expenses. Equally important, if not more so, is that donors also want to know how their money made an impact on peoples’ lives. If you call your year-end summary an “annual report,” donors are likely to assume they’ll see more administrative information and less impact reporting… and they’ll be less likely to read what you have to say.
You want to appeal to donors’ transcendent motives.
Refocusing your annual report’s content speaks to donors’ big motivators. Yes, donors want to know that you use their money well. But, while charts, graphs, and financial reports are a part of that, you also need to appeal to their other motivations.
Donors want to know they’re making a difference in the world. They want to know they are improving the lives of others, and they want to feel like their gift makes a direct impact on their community. In addition to that, they want to feel like they’re part of something larger than themselves. The world can be a lonely place! Donors want to be part of a like-minded community — a community united in making positive change. Your organization is how they connect with that community.
Your report’s title should capture and appeal to those emotions.
What you should call your report instead
So, the term “Annual Report” falls short. It sounds dry and corporate, and it fails to appeal to all of donors’ motivations. It connotes a report full of charts, graphs, and financial reports when it should also show donors the impact they’ve made with their support.
What should you call it instead? Here are some tips and ideas that will help you choose the perfect title.
Tip #1: your title should resonate with donors.
Use a title that will resonate with your donors. We’ve already established that donors have two motivations: making an impact on their community and ensuring their money was used well.
With that in mind, here are a few possibilities:
- Impact Report: this is a strong possibility! You address donors’ motivations in two words: you’re giving them a report about the impact they’ve made on their community. This title establishes that donors will learn about how they’ve affected your community, but it also sounds professional. Calling your report an “Impact Report” is an especially great strategy if you’re talking to large donors, corporate partners, or board members. If you use this title, make sure your content focuses primarily on how donors and their money made a measurable impact on the world.
- Gratitude Report: this one is one of our personal favorites, especially for small- to mid-level donors who are less concerned with numbers and reports and more motivated by stories. “Gratitude Report” sets the tone for a report that balances hard stats and numbers with stories and thank-you messages. If you want to appeal to donors by creating a report that reinforces their decision to give and inspires them to stay involved, this one’s a powerful option. Keep in mind that, if you use this title, your content should be very donor-centric and should focus on thanking donors.
- Community Report: if your organization is especially community-focused, or if your donor base is especially motivated by community improvement, this is a great option! This title implies that your reporting will be done through the lens of its impact on your community, so keep that in mind as you write your report
Tip #2: Tailor the report to your audience.
Depending on your donor population, this might require several different versions of your report, but it will be worth the effort to create this connection with your donors. We know that donors respond best to content that’s relevant to their experiences with you, and keeping that truth in mind will help you make the best impression with your report. If you don’t have the resources to tweak the body of the report, try including a personalized letter to each person who receives it. Here are some different segments that might appreciate tailored messaging at the end of the year:
- Corporate partners: corporate philanthropy is a growing revenue source for many nonprofits. Corporations like knowing their employees and their consumers view them favorably because of their involvement in the community. But corporate donors are also especially interested in quantifying the impact their donations make! Keep your corporate partners happy by showing them exactly how they’ve made a difference.
- Major gifts donors: major donors are some of your most valuable supporters. Show them how much you appreciate their support by building a version of your report around their experiences! Taking some time to highlight projects they’ve helped fund or including impact statements from your clients is a great way to show them their impact. Even something simpler, like enclosing a personal letter with your report, can make a big impression.
- Recurring donors: one of the most valuable group of donors you have is your recurring donors. Tailoring your message to your base of sustaining donors is a powerful way to show them how important they are to your mission. Frame your report as an update on how their ongoing support has made a difference to your organization and the people you serve.
Tip #3: don’t rush
Spend some time settling on a name! You don’t have to come up with something and run with it immediate. Instead, solicit feedback from as many people as you reasonably can. Ask others how your title strikes them. Staff, volunteers, donors, and board members will all have different ideas. Get a good feel for the impressions by asking questions like:
- Is the title exciting?
- Does it make you WANT to read the report?
- Will it delight your donors when they get it in the mail?
- Does it seem boring?
- What do they expect when they see the title?
Tip #4: think outside the “annual report” box
Coming up with a new title for your report will require a change in your report’s content. You don’t want to have a fun, engaging title and a boring report! When you write your report, keep your donors in mind. Try asking yourself these questions as you write:
- Does your content focus on donors? Now that you have a donor-centered title, apply that same donor-centered attitude to the report’s content. Address donors in your introduction and your content.
- Is it engaging? Have you ever gotten a prospectus from your investment company? Has it EVER been an engaging read? Unless you’re super into investments, the answer is probably “no.” But snooze-worthy yearly reports are published all the time! If you want people to read your report, make it fun and easy to read.
- Is it fun to look at? And it should be more than just easy to read! It should also be fun to read and look at. There are lots of ways to do this. Print it in color and use well-placed images to accompany stories. Instead of including Excel-style graphs, try putting together an infographic. Use graphics to highlight important details, stories, or statistics.
- Does it tell a story? People like reading stories, and turning your report into a story will keep them interested. It’s worth pointing out that YOU are not the story! Go light on internal activities such as new office equipment, office renovations, etc. Instead, focus on community impact.
- Will it make a donor feel good? Pretend you’re a donor and are reading your report. How do you feel? Are you happy you gave to your cause? Did you read a great story that’s backed by great statistics? Does the thought of reading another page excite you? Your annual report should inform and inspire readers. Does it do those things?
Tip #5: write for maximum impact
Make your yearly report useful! If you play your cards right, your report can inspire new donors, encourage existing donors, and show the community that you’re an effective nonprofit. Show past and prospective donors ALL the ways supporters impacted your community. Charts and graphs certainly have their place, but expand your methods to include the following:
- Share stories: big numbers are impressive, but they can alienate donors. Curing one sick child or saving one homeless puppy can create a powerful connection between donors and your cause.
- Share quotes: preferably from those who directly benefited from donors’ actions. You could even include testimonials from donors or volunteers! Social proof is a huge part of helping someone decide to support your nonprofit. Show prospective donors that other donors are happy with their choice.
- Share testimonials: again, get testimonials from direct beneficiaries as much as possible. You can tell your donors all day that you make a difference on the community, but it will be much more believable if that message comes from someone else. You can also include testimonials from donors, volunteers, or board members if appropriate.
- Highlight amazing donors/volunteers: this accomplishes two things. It shows existing supporters that you value their loyalty, and that will boost donor retention. In addition to boosting retention, it shows potential supporters that their future contributions will be noticed and appreciated.
- Generally focus on making donors feel amazing: donors give because they care about your mission and because if makes them feel good. If they feel amazing about their impact, they’re more likely to give again. Use this opportunity to make your donors feel amazing!
So many nonprofits do amazing work, but so many of them struggle to share that work in a powerful way. Mix up your annual report a little! It’s easy to maintain your nonprofit’s professional image while avoiding the sterile corporate-image route. Hopefully, this article has given you some ideas about how to inspire your donors with a resource that is so much more than a conventional annual report.