If you don’t love your annual report, why would I? (An urgent plea for passion)
I just broke up with an annual report.
It was a passionate affair while it lasted. For six weeks, I could think of little else. I couldn't eat; I couldn't sleep.
It started out simply enough, just an unexpected assignment from a favorite client. I was led unsuspectingly into a small hallway where stood a table, a chair, and a broken cabinet full of unkempt volumes of forgotten lore.
"Tis some history," I muttered, "only that and nothing more."
But in mere moments, I was lost to a different world. Everything I discovered got me more excited, and spurred me in new directions. I couldn't get enough.
"What am I doing?" I asked myself as hour after (unbillable) hour came and went. I began to resent every second I could not spend exploring my primary sources. I was like a teenager in my lust. I wore my heart on my sleeve.
I began to worry that my friends and colleagues just wouldn't understand. How could I tell them everything, so they could see how special my love was?
And that’s how I approached the Children’s Friend & Service annual report [PDF] some years ago. See more below.
You get a new chance at love every year; don't blow it
Once a year, every nonprofit has a fantastic opportunity to express your love: for your cause, for your work, and for your supporters. In a single document – your annual report – you can tell a powerful, emotional, meaningful story to everyone who matters to you.
Annual reports are never created for everybody. They are written for the people who can do your nonprofit or foundation the most good. And that usually means donors (of both money and time), prospective donors, and people who can help you move mountains.
When they finish reading your annual report, you want them to ACT: to give, to give more, to renew a contract, to introduce you to other important people, to appoint the CEO to a prominent commission, to submit your report to Congress…you choose the transaction.
The good news: they want to be moved and inspired, and will respond favorably.
The bad news: from long experience, they expect to be bored.
Four messages that will get your readers to act
I won’t re-create my entire annual report workshop here. I’ve learned, however, that all annual reports – and we’re talking “print”, by the way – must have four key elements:
- Clear vision and evident passion.
- Proof that you have a unique, powerful, effective way to serve your mission.
- How charitable people were actively involved.
- Thank you! No, I really mean it!
And then support each of those messages with convincing content. You have human stories, heartfelt testimonials, incisive charts, transparent and educational financials that teach, electrifying photographs, and startling timelines. Anything less doesn’t show the love.
Measure every piece of content by whether it fully and powerfully supports one of the four messages. If it doesn't, fix it or throw it out.
You don't start with a boring letter
And yet, nearly every nonprofit's annual report opens with a bloodless, bureaucratic, uninspiring, and uninformative letter from the CEO. Sometimes, the chairperson has written another one just like it on the next page.
If the CEO and chair are not excited and passionate enough about the organization and your cause, then what am I to think?
And that goes for all the writing in your annual report. Consider this paragraph:
“The time was 1 a.m. The place was the Norfolk police station. The eight-year-old boy was handcuffed to a bench.”
Robert W. Bly included the paragraph in his “The Copywriter’s Handbook”. Think you would continue reading the story in an annual report?
As better people than I have said, "You cannot bore people into action."
I don't want to overstay my visit, so here are some resources
We could spend hours talking about annual reports but I can see you need to get back to work. Let me offer some resources I've found really useful.
Oh, yeah, the love affair
Are you really still here? A bit nosy, aren't you? Well, here in a few words is why I fell in love with Children's Friend & Service, an agency celebrating its "terquasquicentennial" (175th anniversary) when it invited me to write its annual report.
In 1834, Providence, Rhode Island was a tough city of 17,000 people and 116 cotton mills. Children were property of the parents, to use as they wished. Government had virtually no stated responsibility for providing social services of any kind.
Horrified local churchwomen recruited a Massachusetts schoolteacher to deal with the explosion of abandoned, wild, starving, and/or lawless children in the city. Within two years, Harriet came up with a revolutionary idea: to open a home that would accept children who were abandoned or whose families legally relinquished "ownership".
Harriet’s idea grew, so that Children's Friend took in thousands of children through the family destruction of Civil War, through the ravages of child labor, and through World War I, until 1926.
But Children’s Friend “graduated” beyond being an orphanage. It also helped pioneer responsible foster care and adoption, laws against cruelty to children (12 years after laws protected animals), the creation of the United Way, the emerging profession of social work, the growing government role and responsibility to help children, women's right to vote, the New Deal, the seventh White House Conference on Children (Nixon), and therapeutic childcare.
I had access to all the paperwork
Remarkably, Children's Friend has virtually all its logbooks dating back to accepting its very first child. I was able to read in the secretary's own handwriting about children being tied to coal barges, regular epidemics killing both parents and leaving young children behind, fathers abandoning families to go to sea or not returning from the many wars.
By the time I read about the agency choosing to become a charter member of the Child Welfare League of America in 1927 or Marian Wright Edelman founding the Children's Defense Fund in 1973, I could only consider the latter "newcomers".
Here, then, was the entire history of America's treatment of children over the past 175 years through the eyes of one single, still-existing agency. It’s history sets Children's Friend apart from every other agency in Rhode Island and most of the United States.
Judge for yourself. The gorgeous design is by Gina DiSpirito at GLAD WORKS, who suffered me looking over her shoulder for hours upon hours.
Last year I loved something else. Next year?
Ahh, my infatuations are always short-lived, just like readers' attention spans. Last year I fell in love with the Wilmer Shields Rich Award-winning annual report we did at the Community Foundation for Southeastern Connecticut. I was in love 12 times with The Rhode Island Foundation (because you have to fall in love anew every year!). And with the Haymarket People's Fund, and a wonderful child care center in Massachusetts, and a national housing foundation, and...
Because if I didn't lose my heart putting it together, how am I going to win your heart as the reader?
I’ll be posting soon why you still have to issue printed annual reports. In the meantime, thanks for reading.