Reinventing the annual report to maximize impact

Editor’s Note:  See related story about telling a good story with the numbers to back it up.

By Bill Abrams

Inspiring stories and photos are the necessary tools of our trade as nonprofit leaders and fundraisers, but are they sufficient to meet the requirements of today’s donors? Especially in the increasingly competitive market for donors’ attention and support, persuading them that your cause is the right choice can be difficult.

Our conclusion: It was time to reinvent our annual report and talk about what reallycounts. While all of the traditional content in an annual report is important, what matters most is impact. What change are we helping to make in people’s lives, and how can we demonstrate our effectiveness?

With more than 34 years’ experience, Trickle Up supports the poorest and most vulnerable women – the  ultrapoor – to start or expand businesses, save money and gain access to credit and build skills, confidence and social connections. To make sure we are having the impact we claimed, about five years ago we began creating a new generation of measurement tools to help us learn how women progress through Trickle Up, what works, what parts of our program can be improved and how that change occurs. This has helped us build a solid base of data and other evidence that supports the stories we tell and the pictures we share.  

We made two decisions to change how we tell our story. We converted our traditional annual report into an online document; for our printed report, we created a new Trickle Up Outcomes Report.  In our reports, we present evidence of how, in 2012, Trickle Up helped 7,558 participants start on a pathway out of poverty and vulnerability. As a frame, we used a set of “definitions of success” for our program that include: 

  • Do women and their families enjoy a better quality of life, including improved food security?
  • Are they building livelihoods that are dignified, diversified, productive and sustainable?
  • Do women have access to fair and effective means of saving and accessing credit?
  • Are they making significant progress toward economic and social empowerment?   

For eight pages of strong graphics and simple text, we assumed that a typical reader would spend 5 to 10 minutes with it. Inside Trickle Up, we love to dive ever deeper into the nuances and implications of our data.  We restrained ourselves from complexity, aiming to provide just enough information so that the reader would see the difference we make and know that we are serious about measurement. For readers who already knew Trickle Up – most of our audience, since we have a very loyal donor base – we assumed that the data would reinforce the stories and images we’ve shared in the past.

Most of all, we hoped that readers would respect us for focusing on the right question, which we posed as the report’s title: “What difference does Trickle Up make?” Of course, our operating statement and balance sheet matter, as well as the sort of spending ratios made popular by Charity Navigator and Guidestar. But, if an organization can’t demonstrate results, none of that matters. Why would anyone donate to a cause that had a 5-star financial rating but no proof of results?

To be sure, stories and photos still are essential, as data alone cannot convey every aspect of change that occurs, especially when measuring changes in complex settings like the ones where Trickle Up works (West Africa, India, Central America). Interpretation and analysis of any set of statistics are ultimately a subjective process, and numbers alone cannot reveal the subtleties of context and human behavior.  In our communication with donors and others who care about our work, we are committed to telling our story through the combination of data, stories, photos and our own experience. In less than half an hour of looking at our website, the Trickle Up Annual Report and the new Trickle Up Outcomes Report, anyone meeting Trickle Up for the first time can get to know us from every angle.

For me personally, this combination of story and data brings together my own professional experience before I joined Trickle Up in 2005. I started my career as a journalist at the Wall Street Journal and then worked for ABC News and the New York Times, so I knew first-hand how powerful well-told stories can be. But I also was very comfortable with data, having lived by Nielsen ratings when I worked at ABC and later by web traffic numbers when I was involved in several web ventures in the 1990s.

To see how Trickle Up tells our story, please take a few moments for a look at our Outcomes Report, as well as our online annual report.

Bill Abrams has been president of Trickle Up since 2005. Visit PJ’s Resource link next week for his advice on how to incorporate data when telling your organization’s good stories.

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