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3 Ways Real People Can Bring Your Annual Report to Life

How Unforgettable Stories Motivate Giving & Keep Donors Close

With budget and staffing challenges touching us all in some way, it’s hard not to evaluate how much time and money go into your annual report.

I encourage you to consider this advice from master fundraiser Tom Ahern: “Think of your annual report as a once-a-year golden opportunity to deeply connect with your customers’ (e.g., donors’) feelings, dreams, aspirations, hidden and sometimes even embarrassing needs—like the need to be liked; or the need to do something good in the world, a need as common as the air in our lungs.”

An annual  report that conveys your organization’s impact in a vibrant and memorable way fulfills your donors’ needs. It keeps them close and engaged. And engagement is the most reliable path there is to donor retention.

So, what does this have to do with people’s stories? Rich, personal stories help fulfill your donors’ needs. They let them touch and see the good work they’re funding. Simply put, these stories (paired with vibrant photos, of course) are real, moving, and memorable.

Below are the three key story types for annual reports.

No single story type works for every donor. You may want to use your donor management database to segment donors by giving history and interests to get a clear sense of which stories will be most relevant for your primary annual report audiences.

Type #1: Beneficiary Stories (a.k.a. success stories)

I like to categorize success stories into two groups: retrospective stories and looking ahead stories. Retrospective stories show your impact to date and build credibility for your organization.


These “our work in action” stories directly connect donors with the change they’ve generated. Be explicit! Link successes with your donors’ support. Give them the credit they deserve. Consider this example from PATH:


PATH accelerated the delivery of a vaccine against deadly Japanese encephalitis in Laos and Cambodia, and our vaccine technologies helped ensure the vaccine’s safe arrival in each community.”







On the other hand, looking ahead stories demonstrate your organization’s potential impact. Piggyback on impact to date to give your donors a preview of what’s to come in the next year  (more of the same good work and success) thanks to their support. Here’s a great example from EcoJustice:

Type #2: Donor Stories

Donor stories engage supporters because they’re about people like them. These stories convey the subliminal feel-good message “people like me do are making a difference,” which motivates donors to stay close and give again.

These stories are much more impactful than names on a donor list, but not enough organizations use them to model great giving.  Get inspired by this compelling donor story from the St. Elizabeth Hospital Foundation. I think you’ll see what I mean:



Type #3: Beneficiary and Donor Testimonials


Never underestimate the power of someone’s words in an annual report. To make the most of testimonials, include as much personal information as you can to bring them to life. The United Way of Greater Stark County does in this powerful testimonial:


 “As a kid growing up, my opportunities were limited when it came to being able to go somewhere like the YMCA. As a YMCA employee for 23 years, I have seen benefits from the dollars United Way has provided for children’s programs. Now it’s like I’m on the outside looking in, seeing how awesome it is for these kids to have this kind of childhood experience. I have always been interested in kids, and 20 years ago, United Way was the organization I felt strongly about in being secure and taking action to create change.

 I know I can count on United Way, and that the money is going to the agencies and not being spent frivolously. I have seen firsthand what United Way dollars have done to our community and feel they make a huge impact. If you build a strong community, then you have a better place to live. ”

                             —Beth Alban, Donor since 1989, United Way of Greater Stark County


Annual report content doesn’t get better than this! Beth’s testimonial works so well because it’s specificity brings her relationship with the United Way to life.

Caveat: The most powerful testimonials aren’t about your organization, they’re about how someone like your donor has benefited being involved with your organization.

If you’re not already banking stories and testimonials, now’s the time to get started. They’ll transform your annual report…and your donors’ response to it!

P.S. Still putting your annual report plans into place? Check out this post to get off on the right foot: 2 Ways to Transform Your Annual Report from Dull to Dynamic





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