Getting Started with Annual Reports

Telling your organization's story

There are a multitude of blog posts and articles out there advising organizations to “tell their story.” But what exactly does that mean and how can you do that in your annual report?

Kimberlee Roth, a guest blogger on, suggests “what will grab your readers, … are the stories, about real people and their challenges, discoveries, resilience and change. Think of stories as illustrations of your work–a neon highlighter, your mission in action.”  She advises using direct quotes and first-person narratives instead of paraphrasing an individual’s story.

You may be thinking: that sounds like a lot of extra work - identifying individuals and gathering details from them! But when you stop to think about it, you or someone in your organization has probably already gathered “stories,” quotes, testimonials from individuals who have benefited from your programs and services throughout the year. Talking about a recipient’s journey, a volunteer’s experience or having a member outline how they’ve benefited from their membership sends a powerful message.  Remember, it doesn’t have to be a long and involved story. In fact, less is usually more in an annual report. You simply want to put a human face on the work of the organization.

Example:  This annual report for Deaf Blind Ontario Services (award recipients in the 2011 VSRA awards) uses client stories to demonstrate the impact of their accomplishments throughout the year.

Using Visuals - Remember to Show and Tell

Whether you decide to create a printed or online document, or even a video annual report, be sure to use photos and other visuals to help tell your story and make your report more compelling. Sometimes a photo conveys a message clearly with just a simple caption – helping keep your text to a minimum. Look through the photos you’ve taken at events and other activities – this might also help you identify some individuals you might be able to connect with for testimonials as well.

Since visuals add impact, you can and should include as many color images as you like in a digital or online version as well as a PDF.  But if you are creating one document for printing that will be used for the PDF, just remember to either factor in the cost of color for the printed copies or else produce the images in black and white format for the printed version. (Take a look at the Deaf Blind Ontario Services example above – they managed to include great visuals and photos, using a 3-color format.) You can ask your designer or printer to advise you based on your budget and to help you with technical support.

Example: Here’s an example of a digital annual report that was ranked as a “Finalist” in the 2011 VSRA’sThe Canadian Feed the Children Annual Report. This annual report uses photos to help tell their story and they also use visuals effectively to demonstrate the impact of their work and their accomplishments.

Design Considerations:

Interesting and well-placed photos and graphics can take your annual report from dreary to dynamic. Visuals will also help to draw the reader in, capture attention and break up the text in both print and digital reports.  Remember to keep design clean and easy-to-read.  Don’t use too many typefaces or fonts and whether online or print, make sure you include sub-heads to pull the reader through and help those who are scanning.

Thoughts on the Executive Directory and Chairman’s Messages

Letters or messages from the Executive Director and Chair of the Board are standard fare in an annual report - for good reason. It is important for those leading the organization to both report and comment on the year’s accomplishments and state of affairs. As Kimberlee Roth suggests in her post - Your Annual Report’s Opening Message:  6 Ways to Motivate Readers:

opening messages. In fact, I believe they can be an important component of a nonprofit’s annual report. When done well–well being the operative word–they provide context for the rest of the publication. They personalize it and make it more immediate, and they help point readers to key information and calls to action.

That said, most opening messages, those “letters from the executive director,” make me want to get out my figurative red pen and edit away (at best) or, at worst, put the publication down or close my browser window. Of course you want your annual report’s welcome to excite readers and motivate them to read from cover to cover.

Roth makes the following suggestions for annual report opening messages:

  1. Keep it Short …a few succinct paragraphs, a half page, 200-300 words. …Hit the high points and move on.
  2. Keep the Salutation Simple - “Dear Friends”–or something similar–is great.
  3. Keep the Tone Conversational - Keep it professional and formal, yes, but not stilted or distant. Don’t be afraid to let some personality shine through either.
  4. Show Awareness…Talking about all the great things that happened without acknowledging others’ challenges during the long, hard recession felt wrong. …Phrases such as “In spite of difficult economic times, we were fortunate to … ” can go a long way.
  5. Keep it Candid and Transparent - Not a good idea to say how great the year was if it wasn’t. You can highlight the good while still being honest about areas you know need addressing. Your donors and other supporters want to know that you’re working to improve and that their time and/or money isn’t being wasted.
  6. End with a Positive Note and Call to Action - Hint at a few things you’re excited about for the coming year, keep your ending hopeful but not artificial, and invite readers to do something–join you on social media sites, sign up for your newsletter, make a donation before the year ends, volunteer at an event, respond to a survey. Instead of making them drowsy, get them engaged–not only in reading your annual report but supporting your cause.

Creative Commons Licence

Getting Started with Annual Reports by Wild Apricot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at

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