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May 18, 2022
Transform Your Next Annual Report from Snoozer into Sizzler
By Bruce Mendelsohn

Bruce Mendelsohn 2017
Bruce Mendelsohn
Although nonprofits aren’t legally required to produce annual reports, these publications represent valuable opportunities to inspire donors by sharing with them how their support made great things happen #147; and are effective marketing tools to inform and engage potential supporters.

Because few hard and fast rules dictate the contents of annual reports, they offer a lot of freedom to share the stories that define your organization. The best annual reports lead readers on a multisensory, multimedia tour through an organization, favoring photos, infographics, and white space over lazy language, confounding charts, and donor lists. The six steps below suggest how you can use these storytelling platforms to inform, engage and inspire stakeholders.

1: Dump or Delay your “Letter from the CEO”
Imagine if the Bible’s first page was a “Letter from Our Creator”:
“This annual report covers the creation of the world. This was a very active and productive period in our organization’s history. I’m proud of the work of our dedicated and resilient staff, who handled many unanticipated situations...”

Instead, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth” promises a story. We want to know what’s next. Similarly, the first line of Homer’s epic tale The Odyssey, piques our curiosity:
SPEAK, MEMORY— Of the cunning hero, The wanderer, blown off course time and again After he plundered Troy’s sacred heights.

Use the first sentence of your annual report to capture readers’ curiosity. Pledge a journey through a year in the life of your organization and deliver it in multimedia content.

While opening sentences will differ from organization to organization, all should emphasize a measurable and meaningful achievement that the readers’ support helped make possible:
“Last year, "organization name" "action verb in past tense" "your organization’s most significant achievement". Discover how your support transformed our organization.”

PRO TIP: If your CEO insists on a “Letter from the CEO,” suggest placing it later in the report, where real estate is more plentiful.

2: Use Infographics
Free programs (for basic functionality) like Infogram, Canva, and Pixlr can transform tables to tales. Substitute traditional tables and charts with infographics, pull quotes, and photos with short stories that illuminate the impact of donor dollars. Connect numbers to stories by complementing your infographics with two-three sentence “story captions.” See Step 5.

PRO TIP: Supercharge your storytelling by directing readers to seek more in-depth content online. See Step 4.

3: Pass on Passive Voice
Mistakes were made when passive voice was used in your annual report.

Passive voice kills active storytelling, making your writing seem dull and listless. By contrast, active voice makes sentences shorter, clearer, and more direct, e.g., “In the beginning, the Heavens and the earth were created” lacks a certain dynamic.

PRO TIP 1: Don’t rely on grammar check features to save you from the peril of passive voice. Programs such as Microsoft Word don’t recognize all instances of passive voice.

PRO TIP 2: Allocate some funds for a meticulous proofreader to review the final proposed draft.

4: Make it Digitally Interactive and Accessible
Three ways to maximize the visibility and appeal of your annual report:
  1. Continue the storytelling online (via digital and social media).
  2. Post interactive graphics (Infogram’s upgraded platform makes this easy).
  3. Make it mobile friendly.
You can never have too much good content. If you must edit your printed annual report for space or budget reasons, use it to push readers to your website or social media platforms where they can access “bonus features” you’ve already posted. This will also most likely boost your digital analytics (bonus feature for you). See Step 5.

Girls Who Code offers a great example of an online-friendly and interactive annual report. Mouse over some of their graphics and you’ll journey deeper into their story.

Given the vast percentage of people who access information via smartphone, make your annual report mobile friendly. That doesn’t mean “our annual report is available online via PDF.” At the very least, format the copy and condense the graphics so they load quickly.

PRO TIP: Use your nonprofit’s digital and social media to “tease” the contents of your annual report in the days or weeks before you publish the print version.

5: Repurpose Content
Repurpose annual report content (infographics, photos, quotes, testimonials, etc.) to fill holes in your social media and/or digital editorial calendars, making sure to link to the complete report on your website.

Highlight a story caption or two that features a link to a video where readers can discover the rest of the story. A story caption can be a photo and two or three sentences that pique readers’ curiosity.

PRO TIP: Beta test this in your next e-newsletter. Include a story caption with a link to a longer (60-90 second) video. Track the click-through rate and views/likes of the video.

6: Inspire Action
Assuming you follow at least some of these suggestions, the stories you share will inspire your readers. By the end of your annual report, you’ve set the stage for your grand finale: The Ask. Whether in print or online, your annual report must ask readers to continue investing in your organization. Don’t ask and you don’t get.

Include in your printed report a donation envelope with suggested amounts or a perforated postage-paid pledge card. Your digital report should highlight links to your organization’s donation page. Also, find multiple ways to encourage readers to follow your organization on social media and subscribe to your e-newsletter.

Investing a little time, talent, and treasure in these steps can help you pivot your next annual report from pillow to page-turner.

Bruce Mendelsohn is The Hired Pen, a digital/social media marketing and branding consultant who helps nonprofits and businesses tell—and sell—the stories that make their organizations stand out. Twitter: @brm90; email:; call: 508-873-6324.
April 2019
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