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Two Ways to Transform Your Annual Report from Dull to Dynamic

Raise your hand if your organization continues to produce your annual report the same way each year? You’re not alone. Too many organizations continue to print pricey, time-consuming reports featuring dozens of text-heavy pages.

Another challenge? Many organizations shape their annual reports based on internal wants and perspectives. Why? I’m sure you’ve heard the answers:

  • “We’ve always done it this way.”
  • “We think this is the best way to summarize the last year.”
  • “We’re required to do it.”

Let me ask you a question. If you started from scratch today, would you produce your annual report the same way you did last year? Be brutally honest with yourself. Put yourself firmly in your donors’ shoes. Ask your colleagues and boss to do the same.

If you’re ready to make a change, take these two steps to transform your dull report into a dynamic one. Your donors will love it. You’ll love the continued donations they’ll make. Win-win!

1) Reframe it as a gratitude or victories report.

nancy-blog-1Annual Report” indicates nothing more than a compilation, the communications equivalent of a file cabinet. It’s where you put everything related to activities, giving, leadership and more for the previous year. Sounds kind of dull!

This year, reposition your report as a showcase, not a file cabinet. Emphasize that it will tell the story of your organization’s most significant wins, made possible by your donors’ generous contributions. Now you have something that proud donors will read, remember, and share. It will be a dynamic donor retention tool.

Take one step further and change your report’s name to ensure supporters notice what you’re doing. Naming functions to formalize your approach, and emphasizing that it’s a deliberate (and strategic) decision. Here are a couple of examples:


  • Baltimore Child Abuse Center:

“At BCAC, we call our annual report the Gratitude Report because we are grateful. Grateful for the hundreds of donors and volunteers passionate about keeping children safe. Grateful for our community partners working to make a difference in Baltimore. Grateful for our team of experienced professionals who give child victims of abuse and trauma a voice.”

  • Pride Foundation:

“Some people might call this an annual report. We call it our Gratitude Report. Thousands of donors, volunteers, grantees, and scholars from all parts of the Northwest share Pride Foundation’s vision of a world in which all LGBTQ youth, adults, and families enjoy the freedom to live safely, openly, and genuinely. Together, we invest in organizations, students, and leaders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington—transforming individual acts of courage into a unified movement for change. For all this, we share our gratitude.”

These alternative themes also work equally well:

What theme relates best to your organization’s past and future impact? Is it equally relevant to your donors?

2) Feature content that makes donors feel great about supporting your organization.


Use your report to keep donors excited about the victories they’ve in the past and those that you hope they’ll support in the future. Take your full range of supporters —from major donors to newbies who came in via peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns—into account as you shape your content approach.

Ask yourself the following questions to get the process started:

What do you have to report annually, in some format, to satisfy key audiences (including the IRS)?

Yes, I’m talking about financials! What else is on your list?

How can you most effectively share the impact of your work with your existing supporters? What do you want them to remember from this year? And what’s of greatest interest to them?

Your report is a unique opportunity to bring your organization’s mission and impact to life. You want donors to say,  “Wow! Look at the amazing things going on at that place. I’m so excited to be a part of it.”

In my experience, that’s what most donors care about, what they may not get elsewhere, and what will spur them to give again. Irrelevant content won’t be read, even if you think it’s the best way to share the impact of your work (and your supporters’ donations).

Don’t know your supporters’ passions, habits, or preferences? Here’s how to Ask and Listen to Get Close to Supporters and Prospects

Which content elements should you feature in your report?

Be specific and direct as you:

  • Focus on impact, NOT activities.
  • Report on wins in the past year.
  • Preview what’s ahead to encourage future giving.

Include both programmatic and operational wins in your victories report. On the operational side, pull the best of your fundraising gains from your donor management database. Every donor wants to know that they have good company (and lots of it) in supporting your organization’s success. Increases in donations, recurring donors, and gift size demonstrate sustainability (and your donor’s legacy).

Go beyond a laundry list of individual wins (within specific program areas or for certain beneficiaries). Instead, make it easy for donors to “get” the whole picture. Connect the dots between supporters’ gifts and past wins, and connect those between each accomplishment and your organization’s mission and overall story. It’s just like a skilled author linking a series of chapters in a best-selling book.

Then, extend those dots forward to anticipated wins, laying the groundwork for asking your donors to fund the impact ahead. This is like that same author linking her books in a best-selling series.

Most important, thank your donors for making these wins happen—again, and again, and again (but keep it genuine).

What’s the best way to present our impact to our donors?

Think donor and beneficiary photos, stories, and testimonials. Your stories told by your people!


When you emphasize rich stories and photos in your report, you enable donors to touch and see the good work they’re funding. That’s what’s real, moving, and memorable.

What typical annual report content elements should go elsewhere?

Comprehensive financials must be shared, but not necessarily in your report! In fact, many organizations find it far more effective to provide a clear summary statement or infographic (with explanations donors can understand) in the report and link to the full financials online.

Take a look at how The Trevor Project features an overview of financials in its report, supplemented by a link its 18 pages of full financials, which are of interest to a much smaller segment of donors.

nancy-blog-4Include your fundraising success in your financial overview section of the report. Graphics generated by your donor database tell the story powerfully and quickly.

Encyclopedic donor lists are commonly found in annual reports but don’t need to be there. What can be powerful is to use your donor management software to segment out new or major donors or donors to a recent special campaign.

If your leadership insists on sharing your list of all donors in the last year, do it online and link to it from your report. An online donor list enables you to quickly and easily correct the inevitable mistakes in inclusion and spelling. Here’s how PATH lists its donors.


Have more questions? I’ll be back soon to share the best way to present your wins and thanks, and how to choose the right format for your supporters.


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