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Mayes Wilson & Associates

Stop printing an annual report

Julie Whelan Capell |

Contributed by Julie Whelan Capell, MWA Associate

It’s that time of year when nonprofits start to think about annual reports. We have a couple of clients who still do a printed one, but they are in the minority, and the reports they print are getting shorter every year.

I want to be clear that when I say Annual Report I’m not talking about the IRS form 990. Some people call that an “annual report” because all nonprofits must file one each year, with some exceptions. MWA does not provide accounting or legal advice and you should talk to your own counsel regarding your Form 990.

What I am talking about is an annual communication piece that summarizes the work your organization has done over the past year. In the past, I have helped to create many amazing, 8-page, glossy paper, color-printed annual reports that could be put in a museum, they were so beautiful.

Nowadays, MWA recommends you stop doing a printed annual report, but it’s still important to let your donors and supporters know what you’ve accomplished in the past year. The annual report is a great chance to enhance transparency and connect with stakeholders. The internet provides all the distribution opportunities you need without ever having to address a single envelope. Just pop your report on your website and send an electronic version to your supporters and you’re done.

I hear some of you saying “but what about the donation envelopes we always include with our annual report mailing?” To which I reply, have you tracked how much money really comes in from that specific source? Does it cover the cost of printing and mailing the report? I’m guessing it doesn’t.

Annual Report Do’s

  1. Description of accomplishments – Here, a picture is worth a thousand words. Limit the jargon and simply show what was achieved for your community and your clients. Keep the text short–picture captions work great and are more likely to be read than long paragraphs of prose. If you just can’t stop yourself from writing, remember that stories are more engaging than data.
  2. Financials – A chart or graph is usually the preferred way to convey this information. Be sure to tell the reader whether you are reporting audited or unaudited numbers, and the time period covered.
  3. Board list – I think a board list is very important. It tells the community about the kinds of people who think your organization is worth investing time and energy in.
  4. Hire a designer – Nobody is impressed by photos that have been stretched out of shape and illegible fonts. Unless someone on your staff is REALLY qualified, you should consider hiring an experienced professional to design your online report. To save money, make sure all the text has been edited and that you have all your photos gathered before you send them to the designer. Making changes after the fact introduces more possibilities for errors and increases costs.

Annual Report Don’ts

  1. The letter from the executive director/president. Communications have changed drastically over the past several years. Gone are the days of impersonal, officious and self-important letters. If you are set on including one, make sure your letter is intimate and personal. It should seem like you are a friend talking to insiders. Sharing one meaningful anecdote is better than any statistic.
  2. The dreaded annual donor list. In all my years doing donor lists, not one has ever been produced without errors. And the amount of staff time it takes to create, edit and fact check these lists is often enormous. You should already have agreements with your biggest donors as to how you will recognize their contributions, and it should be something better than a name on a list in a report that will go in the trash about 2 minutes after it’s received. Trust me, no one is going to notice if you stop doing an annual donor list.

If you need help putting together your annual report, give us a call, we’re here to help!

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