You want your organization’s annual report to stand out. Who wouldn’t?
The challenge lies in the fact that nonprofits rely on the same formulas to achieve the end of the ultimate feel-good piece for donor acknowledgment and cultivation. To the outside world, the slickly designed annual report that you have packed with lush photos of happy children and pithy quotes is nearly interchangeable with those of other organizations. How do you break through uniformity to achieve a truly powerful communications tool? What conventions could you rethink to paint a more intriguing and intimate picture of your organization’s efforts over the last year? This question was the jumping-off point for my scan of nonprofit annual reports in healthcare, using 20 reports from Los Angeles County community clinics and hospitals as my sample. The emphasis was on content rather than quality of design. I devised a master list of content pages and then deconstructed each report by page type. This analysis permitted comparisons across reports and helped to structure the recommendations, below. Observations: The annual reports had some stock elements: CEO letter, infographic with service and client numbers, program descriptions, financial snapshot, donor recognition, and Board and senior staff lists. Other content varied:
55% devoted full pages to client spotlights
45% had profiles of noteworthy staff members
25% detailed their strategic plans
25% discussed building campaigns
20% summarized the year’s accomplishments
15% educated readers generally about the key problem
15% described advocacy efforts in detail
15% requested contributions
Other features were relatively uncommon:
STAFF: Only Venice Family Clinic printed an interview with a staff member (https://venicefamilyclinic.org/), while another had a letter from the medical director. Valley Presbyterian Hospital (https://www.valleypres.org/) included names and photos of staff who had earned internal awards, with descriptions and quotes from patients and fellow employees.
Valley Presbyterian Hospital, “Going the Extra Mile for Our Patients,” 2017 Annual Report
CLIENTS: Children’s Institute (https://www.childrensinstitute.org/) deserves recognition for printing the results of client satisfaction surveys; on another page, it uses reportage to draw the reader into a client-staff interaction:
“Rodolfo waits outside a crowded DMV building while his client takes his driver’s test. Moments later, the teen emerges from the office with his shoulders slumped. ‘I didn’t pass,’ he says. Rodolfo responds, ‘Not a problem. Now you just have to study harder.’ This is the role of a Transitional Development Specialist in CII’s Individualized Transition Skills Program. Rodolfo Gaytan-Ramos is part life coach, part academic tutor, and part older brother.” From: Children’s Institute, “Passion: Building a Bridge to a Better Future,” 2018 Annual Report
PARTNERS: Only two agencies had full lists of community partners.
Share more “behind-the-scenes” moments. The annual report is a chance to welcome the readership “into the family.” Moments that occur out of the public eye and showcase the efforts of staff members across the hierarchy are meaningful to the reader. You might wish to share something that exemplifies your distinct organizational culture, such as a team philosophy or a tradition.
Use physical objects to tell your story. Bring symbolism into play through visual representations of your work and its impact. Describe the use and significance of a recently purchased item of equipment. Devote a page to photos of the signs carried at a rally you organized. Print the ID card of a homeless client who is now “document-ready.”
Summarize the overarching problem your agency addresses. Give the reader some talking points about an issue that is core to your agency, whether that be “the effects of childhood adversity” or the challenges of transition-age youth. It will contextualize the difference you make in the community and expose readers to the full scope of the problem.
Quantify services that capture the imagination. Any factoid could strike a deep chord in your readers. Go beyond the expected tallies. Among the measures in the sampled reports were the number of home visits, sign-ups for a patient portal, immunizations, hospitalized patients who received pastoral care during inpatient admission, clients receiving transportation services, and even the number of client showers!
Get specific about advocacy work and issue a call to action. Give more than passing mention to advocacy and reveal all that you do to improve the sector and the lives of those beyond your immediate patient circle. Invite the reader to participate in this less-visible facet of your mission by volunteering, donating, attending events, and using social media to share news. Remind them that they are a part of the solution.
When you set aside conventions and bring your full creativity into play, your annual report will do far more than inform: it will honor those you serve in their journeys, inspire reflection, and set the stage for deeper engagement.