Graphic Design + Creativity The Basics

Working on your nonprofit’s annual report? Follow these tips.

Spring tends to be the time of year when most nonprofits start working on their annual reports, which provide a way to highlight the year’s accomplishments and tell some great stories about the organization and its mission. They make a great in-hand marketing piece to give to donors, prospective corporate funders, grant funders, and more. But no printing budget shouldn’t stop a nonprofit from still producing a quality annual report. It can simply be put in a PDF and housed on the organization’s website (which is often is what donors prefer since it is cost effective and environmentally friendly).

So, what’s needed to develop a great annual report? A few simple steps can get you started.

First, and foremost, try not to wait until the last minute. If your organization hasn’t been collecting information for the annual report all year long, don’t worry you can still pull one together by trying to make it as simple as possible (and utilizing the steps below).

Plan ahead for next year. As you work on your annual report, keep track of what you wish you had (and make a plan for how you are going to gather the information, stories and photos throughout the new year).

Look back over the last year and make note of all the milestones. that were met and accomplished. Take out your strategic planning documents. Look for any big goals you met and how they impacted your organization. Big fundraising or other events, board or staff leadership changes, and new programs are all items for the report. Basically, any major changes in the organization should be highlighted.

Engage other staff. Some of the best ways to get stories to highlight or generate ideas (like a theme) for an annual report is to include other staff members that are not part of the marketing or fundraising departments. Hold a brainstorming meeting. Send out an email asking for ideas for this year’s theme. People who work on the front lines really understand the impact their organization has on the people it serves (and they are too often not utilized).

Lay the foundation. Instead of just giving an overview of the mission, vision and programs, tell the audience a story. Why does your organization exist? Not your history or how the organization was developed but what need does the organization meet. Show the audience why you do what you do – include research or stats or information about the problem or issues the organization is attempting to address.

Show the impact. Let the reader know by sharing highlights of programs or services from the last year how the nonprofit addressed the issues and problems identified. Definitely highlight your impact with major accomplishments from programs or services including stats if available.

Tell a story. Nothing speaks to an audience better than telling a personal story of a client of the organization. If that’s not possible because of confidentiality, consider at least some quotes about how you impacted them without their name attached. In addition, tell a story about the organization’s impact from a donor, volunteer or even board member and what the organization means to them. Keep in mind that it is essential for you to tell stories from the year that the annual report covers.

Photos & design. Don’t forget to add quality photos that either the organization has taken throughout the year (or quality stock images if that is your only option) to better show impact. Consider having the piece professionally designed as well, especially if your using it as a primary marketing piece for fundraising. Call-outs and infographics should also be created to give short highlights about programs, stats, and impact.

Simplified financials. Almost all annual reports include a financial section. Don’t go too in-depth with financials as it can confuse the audience. Consider a graph or other visual image with totals or percentages that highlight big categories of funding rather than detail every section of the nonprofit’s budget.

Don’t forget to close with a call to action. Always include a small section in the back that speaks to fundraising and delivers a call-to-action to connect the reader to either making a donation or at least visiting the website and following on social media.


Written by Stacy Jones. (LinkedIn)

Stacy Jones is senior project director with SHOESTRING (the nonprofit’s agency). Stacy can be reached at or 1-888-835-6236.