Five Steps to a Winning Annual Report

by Seth Rosen

Annual reports can be boring. But a good one can make a huge difference. Here are my 5 steps to creating an impactful annual report at your nonprofit.

Take a moment and think about your last annual report. What words come to mind?



Good for the litter box?

Time suck?


You get the idea.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. A good annual report can make a huge difference for an organization.

One time I worked on an annual report for an international relief organization doing work in Sub-Saharan Africa. The report was GREAT. So great, we used it to help us close some very large (7-figure!) gifts. There’s no way we would have received those donations without the annual report.

What made the report so compelling? The biggest thing was the way we told stories, both verbally and through images. These stories made it crystal clear to the reader that we were truly helping some of the world’s most impoverished people. It was extremely powerful.

So even though the process of producing the annual report was intensive, the benefits were enormous to the organization.

Now, most of the time annual reports ARE boring. Far too often the annual report gets short shrift. It’s considered a burden. Why? In part it’s because production starts soon after fiscal year-end and everyone is exhausted.

So in 2017 one of resolutions for you is this: your nonprofit will have a kick-ass, widely read annual report that you and your staff will enjoy creating and that will make a real different for the organization!

Sound like one of those resolutions people break in February?

Trust me; this is one you’ll keep, and love doing it.

Here’s why…

My Five Step-Approach to Producing An Impactful Annual Report 

Step #1: Get clear on who the annual report is for.

Before you even write one word of text I want you to ask yourself this pivotal question: who is the annual report for?

Please don’t let the simplicity of the question deceive you – the answer will determine so much about what you do going forward.

To determine your audience it is helpful to take a few minutes to conduct the following exercise: write down the top 3-5 stakeholder groups that currently read your annual report and the 3-5 stakeholder groups that you want to read your annual report.

Don’t just write down “donors,” in either category. Be more specific than that. Think about categories like:

  • Direct mail donors
  • Major donors
  • Foundations
  • Corporations

These categories are especially important when thinking about the types of donors you want to reach in the future. Donor prospects are a key group that you want to read your annual report.

Step #2: Commit to telling stories, not just listing services.

Far too many annual reports are simply a long list of services, not a compelling person-centered narrative. One of my favorite clients, a healthcare-focused social service organization, provides a tremendous amount of services – everything from providing food to GED classes.

Unfortunately, because of the breadth of their work, their annual report felt like a list of services. And frankly, this is just not engaging.

This year, commit to telling the life-changing stories that make your work come alive. Ask your staff and board for their favorite stories. If it appeals to them, it will likely appeal to others as well.

Step #3: Don’t make assumptions about the format.

In the realm of annual reports, you’ll hear over and over that print is dead, and that online reports are the way to go. And while that may be true for some organizations, is it true for yours? Maybe.

But ask yourself:

  • How do my donors most like to consume information about the organization?
  • Are the stakeholders I’m looking to reach able to view a report on a computer? Will people read it on a smartphone? There’s a big difference.
  • Do I distribute my report to partners, and if so, is a physical copy necessary?

Remember, it’s not all or nothing: you can do an online report and a modified print report as well. It’s easier than ever to do small print runs, and some funders still require a hard copy annual report.

Step #4: Run basic focus groups.

So many of us think we know what our stakeholders want, but we never ask them. You know that list you made earlier of the groups you want to read your annual report?

Ask them what they want! Ask them what they are looking for, what format they prefer, and what kinds of stories would excite them.

So often nonprofits assume they have the answers. In 2017, I want us as a sector to ask our stakeholders what they want more frequently. Let’s start with your annual report.

Step 5: Have fun!

This actually should be a fun project. Enjoy the process of putting together the report. This is your chance to put into the world the stories of the amazing, groundbreaking work your nonprofit did over the past year. Share your success with enthusiasm. I promise your passion will be contagious.

So what does a great annual report look like? I’ll share one of my favorites and then I want you to share yours.

I think the International Rescue Committee’s annual report is absolutely top notch.

How about you? Please share examples of the best reports you’ve seen, and include why you like them. This will be a tremendous service for our tribe, and so valuable to all of us.

8 thoughts on “Five Steps to a Winning Annual Report”

  1. What does a newly formed nonprofit do for an annual report when we just got started in March of 2016? Is it important to talk mainly about why we started this journey, or a personal story from the board?

  2. Marcy, I love it!! The pictures, stories, and infographics are just wonderful. And thank you so much for doing this important work!

  3. That’s a great question. I think its a combination of both. My suggestion is to do what you can to communicate your passion for the work and what drove the founding staff and volunteers to start the organization. Your passion will surely be contagious. Good luck and I look forward to hearing about how you are progressing in the future!

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