Annual reports have been a staple of great donor stewardship for decades, and for good reason… they work. Your nonprofit annual report provides an overview of your organization’s work and impact, along with some level of proof about how you are raising and spending your money. All of these items are important to your donors.
Unfortunately, the average nonprofit annual report never gets read. Organizations spend tens of thousands of dollars to create, print, and ship annual reports to donors, only for them to sit in mail piles and get flipped through for 30 seconds before getting dumped into the trash.
The reason for this sad state of affairs is simple: most nonprofit annual reports are boring, full of nonprofit-speak and jargon, and look difficult to read (they’re text-heavy and full of statistics and pie charts). If you want your nonprofit annual report to get read, you need to stand out from the crowd.
In this article, I’m going to give you 5 creative ways to get more people to read your next annual report. This isn’t a design guide. I’m not going to go through all of the best practices for getting your nonprofit annual report noticed. Instead, my goal is to give you some ideas for shaking things up and getting your donors to stand up and take notice. Here they are, in no particular order:
#1: Make Your Report an Unusual Size
I’ve worked with hundreds of organizations over the years, and I’d guess that over 90% of them used a similar size for their annual reports: 8.5 X 11 booklets (or sizes very close to that). One great way to break through the clutter is to choose an unusual size for your next nonprofit annual report.
Why not make your report look like a newspaper by printing it on full size newsprint paper? Or perhaps you should go the other way, and print your report on smaller paper, so it’s the size of a paperback book? I’ve also seen organizations print out their reports on square paper (which stands out against a sea of rectangular annual reports) and even circle-shaped paper (it’s unique, but it takes awhile to layout text so it fits inside a circle.
The point is, be creative. No one says your annual report has to be a medium-sized rectangular booklet!
#2: Use a Wildly Different Concept or Theme
This is my favorite strategy for making a nonprofit annual report stand out. This is also one of the few strategies that can almost guarantee that your report will be read… but it takes real courage and will likely garner lots of pushback from your board and staff. The strategy is to use a wildly different concept or theme, rather than the dime-a-dozen annual reports that most organizations put into the mail.
For example, I once worked with a children’s nonprofit that got creative, and instead of sending out a standard annual report, had a local author and artist create a short children’s book about something related to their mission field. They printed up the children’s book as the annual report. On one side was the book, and if you flipped it over, there was a short annual report. This required them to take their normal 20-page nonprofit annual report and condense it down to 8 children’s book size pages. It was a huge success, and their donors are still talking about it over a decade later.
Think about ways to use a wildly different concept for your next nonprofit annual report. What about designing your report as a comic book? Could you send your report as a deck of playing cards, with statistics and facts about your work on each card? How about turning your entire annual report into one large, beautifully designed poster that donors will want to hang on their wall to celebrate your successes?
#3: Write from a Different Perspective
Most annual reports are written from an organizational perspective. This means that (apart from the ubiquitous letters from the Executive Director and Board Chair), they are written as if the organization itself was writing the report.
If you want to stand out from the crowd, try writing your next nonprofit annual report from a unique perspective. What if the entire report was written by one person (or seemed that it was)? What if the entire report was written from the perspective of one of your clients, or your board chair, or one of your staff members?
This strategy won’t be right for every non-profit, but it could be the antidote to the corporate-speak and jargon that fill most annual reports.
#4: Skip the Written Report, Use Video Instead
Who says a nonprofit annual report has to be written, printed, and mailed? Some organizations have created well-produced videos to serve as their annual report. If you go this route, you can either e-mail out links to the video to your donors and supporters or send flash drives containing the video out to your donor base.
When using video for your annual report, make sure it is interesting and full of great visuals. Avoid the temptation to simply have someone on your staff or board sit in front of a camera to read text off the screen. Instead, embrace the medium, and use pictures and videos of your work, your donors, your events, and other visuals that show the impact your team is having in your community.
#5: Send Lumpy Mail
I love sending lumpy mail. “Lumpy mail” is the term we give to envelopes that have something in them that makes them misshapen and heavier than normal (“lumpy”) and makes them irresistible to open.
This strategy can be used for cold-prospecting letters, high-dollar fundraising appeals, and annual reports. For example, if you’re working with a wildlife charity, why not put a small stuffed animal in the envelope with your next nonprofit annual report? If you’re working for a private school, what about sending a big highlighter or a box of pencils along with the report?
The point of sending lumpy mail is to make the recipient curious about what is in the envelope, so that they want to open it. The item you send should match your mission. One someone opens the envelope, you will still need to be creative with your report so that they will want to read it, but the lumpy mail goes a long way toward making them want to open the envelope in the first place.
Remember: Your Nonprofit Annual Report is a Waste if No One Reads It
No matter what strategy you choose to make your report stand out, remember that it’s a waste of time and money to send annual reports if no one reads them. Many organizations mistakenly think that creating a nonprofit annual report has value in and of itself, but nothing could be further from the truth. The entire goal for your report is to steward your donors… so make sure they want to open and read your report so that you can deepen your relationship with them and make them more likely to give to your nonprofit in the future.