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Choosing a Format for your Annual Report

Lori Halley 25 April 2012 2 comments

This is the fourth and final post in our Annual Report Blog series. So far in the series, we've offered  5 questions to get you started; tips and advice on what to include; and how to tell your story through your annual report. This post wraps up the series with some advice on choosing the format that suits your needs. 

So many options to consider

Back when I started producing not-for-profit annual reports, the standard format was a printed piece in booklet format. Later, most organizations produced printed annual reports and created a PDF version for their website. But today there are so many options to consider including:

  • Digital or online versions
  • Mini-sites
  • Postcards
  • Video
  • A wide-range of print formats

To determine which annual report format is best for your organization, you should investigate your options (and the costs and timelines involved with each), as well as considering your audience and their preferences (e.g., do they still prefer to receive a printed version or do they prefer digital). While you’ll have to handle the donor or member fact-finding, we’ve done some research into trends in annual report formats to help with that side of the equation – here’s what we found:

Are printed annual reports becoming obsolete?

Should you stop producing a printed version of your annual report? The answer depends on the nature of your non-profit or association.

In a guest post on GettingAttention.org, Tom Ahern suggests Your Print Nonprofit Annual Report Can Work Wonders. Ahern offers a case example of how having the “right item” (a printed annual report), in the “right place” (a lawyer’s office), at the “right time” - led to a sizeable charitable bequest. Apparently, while sitting waiting for his lawyer, a man picked up a copy of an annual report and liked what he read about the non-profit – enough to include a bequest to them in his will. This was a case where a printed version, distributed to a law office had a great return-on-investment.

In the same post, Nancy Schwartz qualifies this by reminding non-profits that the message – along with the medium – is also an important factor.  This means ensuring you “[share] stories that your supporters and prospects will relate to, and make it easy for them to do so via clear, succinct language; integration of photos and data visualizations … that make info that’s drier but a must (budget data, stats on impact) more compelling.”

Trends in nonprofit annual report formats

If you’re wondering how other non-profits handle their annual reports, Kivi Leroux Miller gathered some information from some of her non-profit webinar participants in 2011. Kivi surveyed more than 100 non-profits to find out what formats they were using and here’s what she found:

  • 54% were producing annual reports that were more than 4 pages long (with or w/o pdf online)
  • 15% had annual reports that were 4 pages or less  (with or w/o pdf online )
  • 6% had an online version only (PDF/PPT for viewing)
  • 25% didn’t do one
  • 0% had an online version only (video or website page)

Kivi  also asked this group if they’d consider “shorter printed formats like oversized postcards or 2-4 page reports, as well as video and other online formats,” and nearly half  (47%)  suggested they would like to go with a 2-4 page printed version; 23% wanted to try a postcard and another 7% wanted to try a mini-website.

Now while this wasn’t a scientific survey, it does offer some insight into the state of annual reports for many of your non-profit colleagues.

The benefits of digital or online annual reports:

As an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports, “Digital Annual Reports Lure Readers – and May Save Some Cash.” This article by Maureen West notes that many organizations have “decided to scrap the hard-copy version, moving to an all-digital one” when they discover that their expensive printed reports aren’t being read. Many non-profits and charities are using audio, animation, video, standard web pages with text and photos and combinations of all of these media to create compelling digital annual reports.

There are certainly advantages to some form of online annual report, such as:

  • They are environmentally friendly (paperless - saves trees)
  • They have a longer shelf-life (after all, they can remain on your website forever)
  • The digital content can be used in a number of ways (e.g., images or video created for the annual report can be re-purposed)
  • They can save money (no printing or paper costs)

Have you considered video?

Nonprofit social media strategist, Debra Akanase, suggests “video is a natural medium for storytelling, and that’s what the annual report should be.” In the post – Should Nonprofits Use Video for their Annual Reports? – Debra offers four examples of organizations that have experimented with video annual reports, and notes “there are some significant benefits to a video report: lasting content on the Web, video footage for reuse and changing a report into a discussion.”

At the end of her Socialbrite post, Debra offers “Ideas for further socializing the annual video report,” including: “ask[ing] volunteers/members/constituents/stakeholders to submit video content for the annual report” and Crowdsourc[ing] ideas for what should be featured in the report.”

Should you send a postcard?

Another trend that’s been covered by  Kivi Leroux Miller and in chats on LinkedIn’s Nonprofit Professionals Group is post cards. These are a great way to send a powerful, but brief message about the organization as well as notifying your supporters about how they can access the digital annual report. One non-profit communicator suggested including “a GURL (general URL for total tracking) or a PURL (to get individual personal tracking)” on the postcard to drive people to the online report. I've also heard of organizations that included a QR code on the card. You could also consider offering a printed copy upon request in the postcard as well.

Want to see examples?

If you’d like to check out a number of types of online annual reports – from  audio essays to video to mini-sites, check out this Chronicle of Philanthropy article from Jan. 2011: Online Annual Reports: a Sampling. 

What format will you choose?

As we note in our guide – Getting Started with Annual Reports – your choice of formats will depend on your donor's or member’s preferences, as well as your budget and resources. You might decide that you will create a digital version, but want to dramatically scale back the number of printed copies – or even produce a very brief executive summary type of printed format for those who wish to receive a printed copy in the mail.

Additional Resources:

If you’d like additional tips and ideas on annual report planning, don’t forget to check out the new resources we’ve developed for our Membership Knowledge Hub:

Photo source:  Print from BIGSTOCK

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Wednesday, 25 April 2012 at 9:32 AM


  • Debra Askanase said:

    Wednesday, 25 April 2012 at 11:09 PM
    Thanks so much for including my post on the video annual report. Love the postcard trend that Kivi mentions. I could certainly see an organization sending out end-of-year thank-you postcards with a link and QR code to view the digital (or video!) annual report.
  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Thursday, 26 April 2012 at 10:54 AM
    Thanks Debra. Yes I think there are many great options for annual report formats. Organizations can find one or a combination of formats to suit their audience and budget.
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