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The Old Annual Report in the New Digital Age

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By David Chatham

The nonprofit annual report has been around since the first nonprofits were established in the late 1800’s. And it seems like not much has changed since then with this tried and true vehicle for communicating the impact of organizations. We usually see a four- to 16-page printed piece with plenty of text, a few pictures and what seems like an infinite amount of data. But we’re starting to see trends that are challenging the conventional wisdom about traditional annual reports. Here are some suggestions for bringing the old annual report into the digital age. 

  1. More graphics, less text – As with most content today, consumers expect graphic-heavy, easily digestible bites of information. This means utilizing more infographics, iconography, charts and graphs and fewer words. This example from Haven House Services is a good demonstration of turning information and data into easily consumable graphics. So, work on incorporating more images and fewer words to ensure your supporters are getting the best possible information in the most engaging form possible.
  2. Make it about them and not you – The traditional annual report has been seen as a report card or health report for the organization. While it is important for organizations to demonstrate they are maintaining a strong financial position, donors and sponsors also want to know how their support is making a difference. By focusing more on the contributions of donors, volunteers, sponsors and other supporters, you bring them into your story and create a closer, more engaged audience. This can be a challenge, as most organizations tend to be inwardly focused. But making your supporters part of the story will pay huge dividends.
  3. Save a few trees, go digital – This is 2018, right? I’m amazed at how many organizations continue to choose print-only annual reports over a more diverse approach that combines digital and print content. Depending on the source, between 75 and 85 percent of all internet traffic will be video by 2020. And the average user spends 88 percent more time on a website with video. Plus, consumers retain 95 percent of the message when viewing video, versus 10 percent when reading text. So, if you’re not integrating some degree of video in your annual report, you’re likely missing out on connecting with a significantly larger audience each year. Plus, digital content is so much easier to share than a print version, so more people are more likely to get exposed to your organization than with a print only report. Here’s one example of a video that was included in an integrated annual report for Hope Reins, an equine assisted psychotherapy nonprofit. 
  4. Boil it down to one page – I know, this may seem impossible. How can you take 16 pages of stories, stats and information and boil it down to a single page? It can be done if you think small. What do your supporters really care about? Most donors care about how you’re making an impact with their support. How many people are you helping? How much change are you affecting? How many mountains have you moved? This is the essence of your organization’s existence. This is your why. So, in addition to your long-form annual report, create an abbreviated version that tells your story quickly and visually. This example from CORRAL Riding Academy, another equine assisted psychotherapy organization, does a great job of condensing information in a one-page format. 

Are you still doing annual reports the way they were done in the 1800’s? Don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. But now is the time to think about making this year’s annual report one that engages your supporters with information delivered in a format that they will remember and share. Is this the year to shake things up? 


David Chatham is a senior marketing consultant with nonprofit marketing firm Angel Oak Creative in Raleigh, N.C. You can contact him at david@angeloakcreative.com

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