Pop Art Robot Secretary Annual Report1

Is This the Year to Trash that Annual Report?

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I once had a client that was smart, cool-headed, and professional — most of the time.

Until “The Twig.”

Once a year, they produced an Annual Report. They considered their Annual Report the most important piece of communication they did. It got a lot of attention from the president, a committee of the board, and the small village of vice presidents. Everyone wanted to put their fingerprints on the annual report and make sure it captured all their thoughts and beliefs.

As you can imagine, it was a difficult project to work on. It was so important, and there were so many cooks in that particular kitchen, it lead to a kind of group panic. Endless meetings. Endless arguments. Endless rewrites, often going back to square one and starting over. All on a tight deadline. Many people wasted their time and neglected their normal duties during Annual Report Time.

And then it got worse.

“The Twig” happened.

That year, someone at the organization had a cool idea: Make the annual report different from the usual paper-on-ink document. “Let’s be more creative,” they said.

The creativity resulted in the report being printed on paper that was thicker and rougher than the usual paper, a bit off-white in color, and studded with little wood chips and seed husks.

But the really creative part was how the report was bound. The spine of the document was held together by rough twine that threaded through holes in the paper and wrapped around a twig.

It looked pretty cool, really.

I have no idea how the printer found enough twigs of the right size, but it cost an arm and a leg to produce. That was fine with everyone, because, well, it’s an Annual Report.

From that year forward, the annual report was expected to out-do The Twig in coolness and creativity. One year at a brainstorming meeting, I suggested we print it on panes of glass. That was actually taken seriously for about five minutes. 

Trust me, you should be glad you never had to work on those annual reports.

What I learned was this: If someone asks you to help them do their annual report, Just Say NO! (So don’t ask me. You already know my answer.)

But there’s a bigger and more generally useful lesson that probably applies to you too:

When it comes to annual reports at all, Just Say NO!

That’s right. Don’t do an annual report.

I know that may be received as a form of heresy, but I really mean it. Annual Reports often bring out the navel-gazey worst in organizations — they have nothing to do with donors. I’ve heard numerous accounts that are similar to The Twig. 

Even if they aren’t a terrible nightmare to create, they consume money, people-time, and resources with little return.

But you could create something very much like an annual report that would be a great part of your donor communications line-up.

That’s what many organizations do. They call it a “Gratitude Report,” or something similar.

The best ones I’ve seen are a lot like a quality donor newsletter. In fact, many organizations simply put out a donor newsletter with a little bit of annual reportish content.

If you know how to produce a donor-centered newsletter, you know how to produce a Gratitude Report. The difference between the two is negligible: The main thing is amazing stories and photos, shared to prove to the donor that her giving has made great things happen.

What about the financial disclosure content?

That’s right: The revenue and expense pie charts and the unreadable graphs produced by accountants. 

Guess what: Almost none of your donors care about that. Even fewer are able to understand it. For most, it’s a waste of space. Or a possible source of confusion.

You should be extremely transparent about your expenses. And you likely have to file public documents every year (in the US, it’s your IRS Form 990). Make those available. That’s enough financial disclosure. The nerdy donors who want to see them should be able to. Chances are, those nerds are among your best donors. 

If you are required by your governing documents to “print” an annual document that communicates your financials “send” to “all donors” (not common, but some organizations are), include that stuff in your newsletter/Gratitude Report. Make it as unimportant as it is — that is, don’t spread it across many pages. 

Or do as some have discovered: Condense the whole thing into a single postcard and send that.

Costs less, and you’re not likely to get into a Twig situation with a postcard.

What about our annual donor list?

Some annual reports include lists of donors. That is often the major hurdle to producing an annual report. 

For most organizations, a donor listing is somewhere between a waste of time and a force for evil. But not for all.

For some organizations, donor lists are part of the social aspect of being a donor. Some donors actually read those lists! This is especially common for arts organizations. In fact, many performing arts groups put donor lists in their programs. I can tell you that as an audience member, I consider the donor list part of the convert experience … we read it to look for our friends and to find interesting or amusing names.

So give your donor listing some close thinking. Most likely you can cancel it.

Like everything else you do, an annual report should be part of a larger strategy of connecting with donors, thanking them for their involvement, and helping them feel great about their giving.

If it’s not that, cancel it, and put your efforts into other ways of rewarding your donors.

Are you wondering what to do about your annual report? Get expert help by joining The Fundraisingology Lab. You’ll also have access to our Facebook community where fundraisers like you have been through exactly what you’re going through. You’ll get an amazing array of fundraising courses, cheat-sheets, templates, and other resources. Learn more about The Fundraisingology Lab membership here.

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  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Lorelle Lake
    April 8, 2021 9:04 am

    Love it. Although I’m doing grant applications and invariably they ask for annual reports… so we need something… but I’m right up there with you about sacking the committee and doing something like a quality one pager…


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