Your Annual Report:
More Than An Accounting ©
Be strategic with your print or digital annual report
by David L. Shank, APR
Shank Public Relations Counselors

Your organization has done a stellar job of feeding the hungry, protecting children, improving the environment, and creating great art. More than likely your constituents know bits and pieces of your good work, but can they put the puzzle together all in one place to see your big picture?

Your annual report can be the completed puzzle illustrating your mission in one cohesive experience for those important to you. But who are those groups and people who need to know you for your future benefit? Before you begin concepting a print and digital annual report think through your important publics which may include:

  • Clients
  • Funding sources and contributors
  • Your volunteers
  • Your board
  • Your staff
  • Your community as a whole and your immediate neighborhood
  • Client referral sources
  • Government regulatory agencies
  • Other not-for-profits – your peers and partners, and
  • News media – your annual report can be a great source of new story ideas for reporters who cover you or it can be a springboard to introduce a reporter to you.

Before entering that first great word or graphic, think through your objectives and find out as much as possible about how effective your past annual reports were in meeting your objectives.

Conduct a readership survey

Take the time to analyze your present annual report. Talk with several different categories of annual report recipients and ask if they can tell you what your organization does. Do they “get” your goals and objectives, your positioning?

Recognize that different people will “get” different things from your work: accountants read the financials; contributors read the program sections and the donor listings.

Define your objectives:

What is the one thought you want your reader to remember when she or he is done reading or viewing your annual report? Is it a new program you’ve introduced that surpassed your past mission? Is it new ways you provide services in a more efficient manner? Your outreach efforts and programs to help more people? How you’ve tightened down and reduced costs without affecting programs or services?

What do all of these mean to your overall mission and how is it communicated in your annual report?

If you can’t find a focus, your messaging will be scattered and your readers will be confused. That’s not a confidence builder for your clients, donors and staff.

A typical structure

Whether your annual report is printed or digital there is a format your readers expect:

      • An attention-getting cover that makes your reader want to turn the page or advance to the next screen to see what is so exciting
      • A Message from the Executive Director and/or the Board Chair. This is leadership’s opportunity to thank the staff and past supporters, but more importantly it allows leadership to lay out the plan for the future. The message also briefly and without jargon highlights critical milestones reached in the past year.
      • Program pages demonstrate who you serve and how you serve them. If you’re a human services organization you can visually demonstrate your commitment to diversity. Have colorful pages of bright, interesting people telling their own stories through testimonials about how your programs have changed their lives. If your annual report is digital consider using short – less than one minute – video segments. Have your staff tell their own stories of how they are personally rewarded by working with your clients. You can link these video stories on the printed page with QR codes so readers can see the video on their smartphone. See below.
      • For financial integrity the financial pages are critical but they don’t have to be totally boring. Certainly the data has to be present, but help your reader and potential donor really understand and make sense of data with appropriate infographics. Typical pie and bar charts can be much more interesting AND understandable if you think digitally and about how they can be converted to infographics.

A major issue funders and accountants look at is the ratio of administrative costs to program costs. You can find a way to demonstrate your organization is fiscally responsible.

Donor recognition is an important part of your annual report. But numerous pages can add thousands of dollars of production costs to a printed annual report. Consider a meaningful thank you and refer your donors to a comprehensive listing on your website.

      • Your annual report may be your most important printed and digital marketing tool. Make sure it reflects who you are AND illustrates what you want to be.

Concept development: Theme comes first

Publishing an annual report because you “have to” is a waste of time, energy, trees and most importantly, your funds. Pick your themee that reflects not only who you are today but how you see your organization in the future and how you want to be seen. Avoid corporate and jargony words. Speak and write as real people speak and write.

Make your readers want to read it. Use creativity, graphics and photos that tell your story. Your presentation AND message must match the objectives and reality of your organization. For example, we produced an annual report for an organization that provided kids with camping experiences. We spelled its name in twigs on a rustic picnic table which became the graphic theme.

Consider using video testimonials embedded in your digital annual report and be sure the graphics and tone of the testimonials match the print version. You can include video or graphics in the print version by using QR codes that link your print to video on your website.

Be careful about your production values. A too “slick” annual can be counterproductive by creating the perception you spent a lot on the report. However, a report produced on light weight, cheap paper, with amateur photos or video and produced by an office copier will make your organization look cheap and tacky, and not worthy of future funding or volunteering.

Always remember people, in general, do not spend much time reading. Communicate quickly, graphically.

Quick Tips to Make Producing Your Annual Report Easier:

      • Start early. Planning six months before your scheduled delivery isn’t too early. Consult early with your executive director, CEO, or board chair to define their vision or message for the annual report.
      • A good looking report will generate interest and funds, but a cheap looking report will diminish your organization.
      • Include a self-addressed contribution envelope in your annual report. You may get enough immediate contributions to pay for production.
      • Look for cost efficiences. Consider black and white instead of four-color.
      • Using a complementary paper stock with two-color inks, can give a four-color appearance.
      • Choose a size that maximizes paper efficiency. Your printer or designer can guide you in the right direction.
      • Design with postal regulations and costs in mind. A design that’s off by an inch can cost you a fortune in postage.
      • Keep your reader in mind, especially for the print version. Your major donors may be older folks, so help them by using a larger font, nothing less than 12 point.
      • Avoid reverse and fancy fonts for the same reason. Your designer may  balk but following the KISS principle – Keep It Short and Simple – may mean more contributions.
      • Use your annual report to drive people to your website or Facebook page.
      • Create a .pdf file version or Flipbook version for your website or Facebook. Go to to see an example
      • Readers love faces and especially faces of children, but make sure you ahve model releases signed by a parent or guardian for children under 18 years of age. If you’re in health services double-check HIPPA requirements.
      • Obtain photos from outside volunteer sources: not every photo must be professional — however, bad photos can make a good annual report bad and bad pictures make a bad report worse. Even though you may have hundreds of digital photos, a bad photo is still a bad photo.
      • Seek in-kind contributions to defray production costs.
      • Keep your management up-to-date during the process. Don’t surprise your CEO with the design and theme at the last moment.
      • Proof, proof and reproof — errors damage credibility and can cost you big time in reprinting or last minute corrections.

Make your report work for you:

      • Printing your annual report and delivering to the Board and your donors is just the first step. It is a long-term tool to be used in many ways.
      • Overprint enough to use your annual report as your agency brochure.
      • Have enough to take everywhere you go. Use as a leave behind for speeches, presentations, inquiries, fund raising letters and donor meetings.
      • Provide to new board members as a quick introduction to the agency.
      • Give to volunteers so they understand the organization.
      • Send to news media in your area as background information that may create news stories.
Your annual report is an important strategic tool for organization. Produce it with goals and objectives in mind and it will pay for itself many times.