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Choose the Right Annual Report Format for YOUR Donors

When many of us hear “annual report,” we immediately think of a big book. You know what I’m talking about, a text-heavy, 12- to 24-page booklet printed on thick, glossy stock. I don’t know about you, but my eyelids are growing heavy just thinking about it.

Let’s agree right now to step away from the “same old” and pinpoint the best annual report format for your donors. That’s who you want to design your annual report for, not for your staff or leadership. Even if you can’t convince the powers that be to eliminate much of your annual report text, you can probably format and design your report to be more appealing.

Below are several formats for your consideration. Take a look at these formats and assess the viability of each in light of two factors:

  1. Your donors’ passions and preferences
  2. Your organizations’ communications skills, budget, and timeline.

Crafting a report that’s formatted in the way your donors prefer, they are more likely to read it and more importantly, continue to support your organization.

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Online Formats

Online annual reports provide ultimate flexibility, endless reach (but keep your focus on getting donors to read it), easy-to-share elements, and memorable interactivity. Using an online format also gives you the ability to ask readers to make online donations.

These are the four most frequently used digital report formats:

1. Mini-sites (unique URL):

These reports range from a single-page mini-site filled with vibrant images, graphics, and embedded videos to fully interactive reports offering animations and more. Be sure to include a report menu or table of contents so readers can quickly view the content that interests them. Examples:

2. PDFs:

Reports in PDF format are easy to download, print out, or share. Make sure to embed the PDF in your site, rather than requiring your readers to download the report.

Beware of simply posting the PDF as a document for donors to print and read. That’s what I see from most organizations. Optimize the PDF report for easy online reading by including a “live” linked table of contents.


3. Video:

Videos are engaging, still unusual (so attention-grabbing). However, it can be hard to convey more than top-line stories in video format. That may be enough for all, or some, of your audiences.


4. Infographic:

Infographics provide a visual take on your organization’s impact. They are frequently replicated in print (on a postcard or poster) to be mailed and otherwise distributed to drive donors and others to the infographic. Including photos is a great way to strengthen this format (as seen in the Don’t Forget to Feed Me example).


Print Formats

Many organizations still find value in getting a copy of their annual report in donors’ hands (literally). Keep in mind that every approach and format may require you to segment donors via your donor management software. For example, you may want to refrain from BRE insertion for the foundation, major donor, and partner report recipients.

Here are the two most common alternatives to the big book.

1. Postcards:

Postcards are seldom used so they deliver the “surprise” factor. You can highlight compelling photos and graphics on front of a postcard and feature a few key messages on the back, using bulleted highlights. Optional: send people to your website for more stories, donor information, and financials. Examples:

2. Brochures:

Short brochures can effectively highlight your key messages, stories, and stats while remaining quick to digest. Make it 2-page, 4-page, or poster style. A self-mailer will save you precious fundraising dollars. Examples:

Use More than One Format to Deepen Reach and Engagement

Many organizations put two (or even more) formats to use. For example, you may send a postcard with report highlights to all donors and other key stakeholders, urging them to go online to check out more in-depth content on a mini-site or PDF.

If you must create the Big Book, considering reducing print production to reach selected donor segments. Then, make it available in a user-friendly PDF version (not just the PDF you send to the printer, a linked table of contents is a must) for others. Email the folks you want to digest the entire online version, highlighting the value they’ll get out of your report.

Your format-mixing options are endless, but depending on your resources, you can customize your report to reach different donor segments most effectively.

Preserve Prose, No Matter Your Format

Photos and videos may be worth a thousand (written) words, but don’t slash too much text from your report. Clear, concise writing is critical. It sets the stage and gives context to your messages. Without it, disparate visual elements can feel disjointed and confusing. Compelling prose ties the piece together and keeps audiences focused right where you want them to be: on your messages, mission and impact.

End with a Positive Note and Call to Action

No matter the annual report format(s) you use, end on an “up” note. Share a few things you’re excited about for the coming year, keep your closing hopeful, and invite readers to do something – make a donation before the year ends, volunteer at an event,  or respond to a survey. Instead of making them drowsy, get them engaged by continuing to support your cause!

P.S. As you consider what changes to make in your annual report, review Nonprofit Marketing Guide’s Annual Report Examples. These varied reports include digital and print formats with a focus on short-form reports. They are a useful catalog of doable, yet imaginative ways to reshape your annual report and double as solid proofs of what others are doing. This is useful for building buy-in among the “let’s do it the way we’ve always done it” decision makers in your organization.

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