Annual Report burnout is real. We’ve got the antidote.
Annual reports are, well, an annual topic of conversation (or contention) at most nonprofit organizations, and the majority of for-profit companies and corporations.
According to Investopedia, “Annual reports became a regulatory requirement for public companies following the stock market crash of 1929, when lawmakers mandated standardized corporate financial reporting.” Of course, those functionally-driven reports were nothing like the ones we see today, which can take a variety of different elaborate forms, and cost tens of thousands of dollars to create.
But just because an organization likes the idea of building a flashy website, designing a glossy printed brochure, or publishing a 60-page magazine to deliver its yearly reporting info, doesn’t mean that they should.
As an agency that believes in learning from our experiences, we’re sharing some of the insights we discovered during our own annual report creation journey—as well as what we believe can be a more effective, and efficient, approach for yours.
“Inspired by insights. Informed by data. Designed for impact.” It’s what we’ve always preached as our core approach when helping nonprofits with their marketing efforts. Starting in 2020, we decided to take this philosophy and leverage it for our own agency, by creating a highly-interactive, web-based annual Impact Report to share with our team, our clients, and potential new partners.
Much like NPOs’ annual reports, we focused our Impact Report on telling powerful stories, delivering transparent data, and showing meaningful results. Each year, we’d spend months gathering inputs from various campaigns and initiatives, and connecting the dots to demonstrate the impact that they had on our client’s missions.
In March 2023, we decided to reevaluate. Our agency had doubled in staff, and number of clients, since our first Impact Report was published.
That’s where the questions started. What, actually, were we considering “impressive?” Was the investment of our team’s hours worth the return? How many people were viewing or engaging with our report, and did that affect their perception of, or their interaction with, our agency?
A Tough Lesson
By following our own data-driven advice, and re-examining the traffic and conversion stats for our 2022 report microsite, we reached a difficult conclusion: the answer to our questions was predominantly ‘no.’ But that didn’t mean we would stop showcasing our impact. It simply meant that we needed to pivot where, what, and how we would do it.
For this year, we’re shifting our approach from making a huge investment in a one-off, custom deliverable, to communicating everything we want to share in a singular, “always-on” page on our website that can be updated and refreshed annually. And because the level of effort will be so significantly reduced, it’ll give our team back the time they need to work on more impactful projects—like helping our clients move their missions forward.
You might be wondering…why did we decide to tell you about an internal project that challenged our thinking, and didn’t quite work out as planned?
We were inspired by a recent Candid.org blog post about their own annual report experience (we encourage you to check-out their perspective!) and wanted to take a moment to share ours, as well. We also believe that it’s just as important to learn from our challenges as our wins, and use that knowledge to help other organizations figure out a better way to approach their annual report goals, too.
Of course, we also realize that this may be a touchy subject, especially if you’ve been creating a complicated report for years. However, especially with the global, political, and economic uncertainty right now, re-evaluating how you’re investing your time and budget is an important strategic move for both your bottom line, and your ability to fulfill your programmatic objectives.
Just to be clear: we’re not advising you to get rid of your annual report entirely. We’re simply suggesting that if you’re frustrated by how much time and money you’ve been investing, or are feeling the pressure to get fancier and more complex with every edition—it can be helpful to reevaluate what’s next from a different perspective.
Part 2 is all about reevaluating YOUR annual report. Before deciding the best way to pivot your own approach, it’s important to get back to the basics of what an annual report needs to accomplish: communicating progress, trustworthiness, and transparency. Then, with those boxes checked-off, you can start identifying what other goals you’d like to achieve, and explore whether there may be other, more cost- and time-effective ways to reach them.
Let’s dive in.
Step 1: Go Back to Basics
If you’ve ever heard the expression, “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket,” that’s the general idea when it comes to your annual report. While it’s tempting to try to make this NPO staple serve multiple purposes, the end result is often a report that feels disconnected (from having too many cooks in the kitchen), unfocused (from trying to accomplish multiple goals), or at the very worst, inaccessible (your readers can’t easily find the information they need because it’s obscured by so much other content).
TL;DR: Annual reports will always be a key component of your organization’s communications strategy, but they shouldn’t be asked to carry the weight of achieving all of your organization’s hopes and dreams.
Instead of continually trying to create bigger, bolder, more immersive reports every year, we recommend doing the opposite: paring back your annual report effort into a simplified, downloadable PDF, or even an “always-on” website page like we’re doing at Media Cause. Here are a few things to consider before you get started:
#1 Create an annual report template that you can reuse year-after-year with minimal updates. Don’t let perfection, or wanting to be clever / innovative / unique get in the way of getting your report out the door.
#2 Plan your stories ahead of time, and be judicious in how many you actually need to include. Try to pull as much as you can from existing content across your other communications channels to avoid duplicative efforts. If you’re still finding that you need additional stories, talk to your program team well in advance so they can get started on drafting new material early.
#3 Work with your data team to identify which stats from the past year will be the most impactful to share. There are some standards that you’ll always need to include, and that should be baked-into your annual template. But there may be opportunities to highlight other key metrics, as well. Decide on them early, and give your data team plenty of time to get them ready to share.
With your focus, your workflow, and your output simplified, creating your annual report doesn’t have to be costly and time-consuming. And even better—you’ll likely find that it opens the door for your team to invest in other opportunities to expand your impact and accomplish more nuanced goals, like the ones we’ll explore next.
Step 2: Turn Goals into Opportunities
IF YOUR GOAL IS TO…drive organizational awareness to build new connections…
From our experience monitoring traffic to both web-based and downloadable annual reports, we’ve seen that most views/downloads come from folks who are already in an organization’s ecosystem. Unfortunately, this means that they’re not the best path for driving new awareness. However, by thinking beyond the report itself, there are ways to leverage the content across other channels to reach new audiences and build new connections.
An Added Opportunity:
Develop an evergreen digital marketing strategy that allows you to communicate key programs, values, and differentiators across multiple channels all year long, and can support multiple objectives, including awareness, lead generation, program recruitment, and fundraising.
Then, when your annual report PDF or landing page is ready, leverage your strategy to share snippets of content across all your other marketing channels. Social media can be especially effective here, as audience targeting and paid amplification (boosted posts, paid ads, etc) can allow you to share your most compelling stats and stories with new audiences who aren’t yet in your database and lead to an increase in followers, site visits, downloads, and email list signups.
IF YOUR GOAL IS TO…convert supporters into donors…
Most NPOs’ supporters will, at the very least, skim through any annual report they receive when it’s first delivered. From a psychological standpoint, simply knowing that their organization is being transparent provides them with a sense of trust, and reinforces that their decision to continue engaging with them is worthwhile.
However, annual reports have a tougher time turning supporters into donors for this very same reason: they become comfortable with their current level of commitment, and don’t see an immediate reason to engage further.
An Added Opportunity:
One of the most effective ways to nurture supporter growth is through strategic email campaign development. And bonus—this can happen year-round, not just when you publish your annual report!
For example, anytime you collect a new email address through a petition, a newsletter, or webinar registration, etc, that individual should automatically be dropped into an email Welcome Series, with content that helps expose them to a variety of facets of your organization, as well as multiple ways to get involved.
Storytelling elements, like testimonials or success stories, are especially helpful. Links to your annual report PDF or impact page should also be included. This helps establish the trustworthiness of your organization, right up front.
Beyond the initial Welcome Series, creating custom flows for each type or level of connection can also help usher individuals from one category to the next. For example, if you want to convert one-time donors into sustainers, consider what might motivate that audience to make a longer-term commitment. Then, develop an email content series that speaks to those motivations, with ample opportunities to opt into greater investment.
IF YOUR GOAL IS TO…thank current donors by highlighting what their contributions made possible…
Your most invested donors typically want to know that you’re acting as good stewards of their money. However, glossy magazines or flashy websites can create an interesting paradox in many donors’ minds. “If they’re spending all this money to tell me about how they’re spending my money…is my contribution actually being put to the best use?”
By opting to publish a PDF or single-page website report instead, you can redirect more funds into your programming. Not only will this approach demonstrate your dedication to your mission, but it’ll also allow you to tell a powerful story about where your organizational priorities lie.
An Added Opportunity:
With the rise in AI and automation across CRM platforms like Classy, Hubspot, Salesforce, Blackbaud, etc., creating customized email content with program updates, community testimonials, and other “proof of impact” content is easier than ever. To more effectively thank donors at every level for their support (and show them that you’re being intentional with their money), consider adding a segmented email approach to your annual report communications.
For example, imagine you have three unique donor segments in your database: donors under $500 in annual gifts, donors from $500-$5000 in annual gifts, and donors over $5000 in annual gifts. An “annual report” email to all segments could include content communicating your organization’s overall impact in the community throughout the past year. But then, the email to your under-$500 group might also include content explaining what every gift of $100 allows you to accomplish, showing the tangible impact of their contribution. The $500-$5000 group might get a story from another donor about why they increased their contributions last year, and how much your organization’s work means to them (peer stories are great motivation).
Depending on how comfortable you are with personalization in your CRM platform, you might even include person-specific donation impact content for your over-$5000 group to make them feel recognized and appreciated. (For this crowd, a hand-written note always works wonders, as well.)
IF YOUR GOAL IS TO…tell your organization’s story…
This one may seem silly to include, but it’s worth the reminder—you don’t have to wait for a magical date on the calendar, or a single publication, to tell your organization’s story! That’s what your website, email, and social media are for, 365 days a year.
An Added Opportunity:
Similarly to our evergreen marketing strategy recommendation for increasing awareness and connections, the most effective and efficient way to tell your organization’s story is to invest in creating, publishing, and amplifying content throughout the year. If this seems daunting, or you’re saying to yourself, “I don’t have the time / people / patience / budget to be creating content nonstop,” there are a few key things to remember.
1. What you’re not spending on creating a big, bulky traditional annual report can be reallocated to other efforts.
2. You don’t need to create unique content for every channel that you’re on. For example, if you commit to writing one blog post per week on your website, a team member can easily turn that content into posts for your social channels, include snippets in your regular newsletters, and add it as a “latest news” feature on your homepage.
Where to go from here
We hope that after reading this blog series, you’re convinced that an annual report doesn’t have to drain all of your team’s time, energy, and budget to be effective. And, we also hope that you’ve gained some new ideas on how to effectively reach more of your organization’s goals.
Whether you decide to explore one of the recommendations above, or experiment with all of them, it’s important to remember that they shouldn’t be approached as separate initiatives. They’re all interconnected, and complement each other as part of an overall marketing and communications strategy that’s centered on the needs, behaviors, and interests of your target audiences. Partnering with a full-service agency like Media Cause can help you navigate the nuances, and maximize your success, every step of the way—ultimately, empower you to create even more impact for the people, communities, and issues you serve.