February 16, 2013

How to make your annual report story worth telling

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Nonprofit annual reports are an opportunity to reassure stakeholders, share a year's worth of success, and look to the future. But have you considered the greater purpose behind the stories – something more aspirational – that becomes the narrative thread, weaving the stories together into one worth telling?

blank bookOf course, great stories should be at the core of any annual report. How stakeholders interact with the nonprofit's cause – that is, whether they respond to it emotionally or rationally – should guide the narrative. For example, if your annual report focuses too much on numbers, it won't speak to the heart. If your stories rely too heavily on emotion, the greater impact and outcomes may be overlooked. Great stories have elements that appeal to the mind, but speak to the heart; when joined together, these elements build credibility.

As you plan your next annual report, consider the following principles:

  1. Is it meaningful? Does the reader come away with a sense of greater purpose? Does it engage them in the cause, and communicate the values of your organization? Is it a story worth telling?
  2. Does it inspire trust? Readers want to know if your organization has been a good steward of the resources entrusted to it. Is there complete transparency in the reporting and the data?
  3. Is it positive? Whether times are good or bad, optimism is a powerful motivator. Conveying a positive outlook will give readers hope, and more deeply engage them in your story. Consider writing from the perspective of an "abundance mentality," focusing on your organization's favorable impact.
  4. Does it express gratitude? Beyond reporting outcomes and impact, beyond listing donors and volunteers, does it convey a sense of thankfulness? The outcomes and impact are a direct result of your reader's support, and it's meaningful to them when you acknowledge that fact.
  5. Is it inspiring? Do the words and images make the reader want to join in the fight and work for the greater good? Has the impact of the organization been articulated and demonstrated?

Here's a real-world example of how these principles were applied.

The narrative of Second Harvest Food Bank's annual report was guided by Aespire's cause manifesto principles, as detailed in our creative brief:

  1. Be Meaningful: Beyond communicating its mission and vision, remind readers of Second Harvest's purpose — to be the leader in alleviating hunger in the region — and make it clear and compelling.
  2. Be Trusted: Be transparent and tell the truth — in this case through accurate financials, statistics, and data. Help the reader visualize the impact with symbols that clearly represent the data and outcomes: human figures representing population; maps and color to convey agency density; and bar graphs for distribution data.
  3. Be Positive: The real story of Second Harvest is about compassion, generosity, volunteerism, partnership, stewardship, and abundance in the region. Make these keywords prominent, as narrative summaries.
  4. Be Thankful: Acknowledge that success is achieved through the support of Second Harvest's donors, partners, and volunteers.
  5. Be Inspiring: Reflect on 30 years of growth and progress; clearly convey Second Harvest's role in eliminating hunger; and project a confident, positive outlook for the future. Begin with a historical timeline and foreshadow plans for the next 5 years in the summary statement.

These five principles will help you create an annual report that informs, inspires, and engages your current – and future – stakeholders.

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