Guest post: 10 things to consider when designing your annual report

Linda Henneman, ThinkDesign

Linda Henneman, ThinkDesign

Over the years, I’ve been in charge of developing a dozen annual reports for large foundations. For some of them, I was lucky enough to work with ThinkDesign Group. Their award winning work is known for its powerful interplay of text and design. For this guest post on annual reports, it was a no-brainer to turn to Linda Henneman, creative principal at ThinkDesign.

My nonprofit clients are producing annual reports this year, despite the economic downturn. Together, we’re creating pieces that are appropriate for the times. Like them, you too may be faced with a complex story to tell, with only a few pages to tell it on—most likely on a trimmed budget.

While addressing the reality of the economy is important, it need not be all doom and gloom. Instead, your audience needs to know that supporting your organization’s work now is more important than ever. So focus on setting the tone through a reassuring voice and compelling design, and be assured you won’t need to break the bank.

Remember, an annual report is your chance to talk to the people who have been passionate enough to support you financially. So create a solid annual, they’ll appreciate it!

1. How to think about the strategy behind the annual report

  • Yes, it’s a report addressing the past year, but make it even more useful by placing focus on the future.
  • What’s your message? It must be aligned with the needs of your organization, concise, true in good times and in bad, and delivered with confidence. Your message should convey the essence of your organization.
  • You’re talking to your supporters, but it’s also a great opportunity to talk to a new audience. Balance the “choir” audience and the potential new audience. Keep in mind that your supporters may also need help understanding the nuances of what you do.

2. Key leadership needs to be a part of the process

  • This is true from the initial discussion to choosing concepts. This is a piece that is the voice and vision of the leaders. Hearing directly from them is critical in setting the right tone.

3. Bring the designer and writer in early, they’ll help spark the process

  • The writer and designer can get the process started by being the outside voice and getting the focus off of the “internal speak.” Designers are problem solvers by training, and can offer ideas to overcome challenges. A good writer can inform the design and make the whole piece stronger, so get them on board from day one.
  • Provide your design team with the details they need to make your annual report stand out.

4. Start Early

  • Give yourself enough time, between three and four months. Forcing it into a shorter amount of time will only increase cost, errors, and stress. Your annual report concepting process can be a great opportunity to evaluate, revise, and reinforce your organization’s communications strategy.

5. The power of less copy & why writing shorter can be better

  • Using minimal text with powerful images can make a strong statement; quickly. In today’s world, it needs to be quick. People are taking less time to read.

6. A great cover makes you think

  • The cover should make you think. You should feel the urge to open it. And when you do, you get the payoff: your curiosity is satisfied.

7. Don’t neglect the mailing envelope

  • The envelope needs to break through the mail pile. An odd size for a little extra “wow,” or try colored envelopes or add a teaser headline to spark interest.

8. What to look for in photos

  • Photos don’t need to be literal—like people sitting around a table, working. Find more dynamic ways of telling your story.

9. Today’s green printing option

  • Promoting green printing practices sends a powerful message and can motivate others to do the same.
  • Choose a designer knowledgeable in eco-friendly paper and printing vendors. One that can help you make decisions on paper recycled content, vegetable-based inks. Look for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, renewable energies, efficiency in printing and press/paper setup.
  • Be sure to add a simple line of text explaining how your piece was printed green, include all applicable “certified-green” logos.

10. Differentiate your report from others without breaking the bank

  • It’s easy: a good concept, with strong messages, compelling visual, and clear, concise copy—and it doesn’t have to cost a lot to print. For instance, The Headwaters Foundation for Justice’s consistent, award winning annual reports are 2-color, use stock photography, and reprint efficiently on a sheet of paper.
  • A good designer can help choose an appropriate printer for your specific project. Paper selection, production and printing techniques can all be ways to cut costs.
  • Mailing cost is another area for potential savings. Consider smaller formats for lower postage costs.
  • Order realistic quantities. It may be cheaper per piece to print more, but if you just throw them away it doesn’t save money or the planet.



13 Responses to “Guest post: 10 things to consider when designing your annual report”

  1. Barbara Talisman Says:

    Gayle and Linda,

    These are great tips! Thanks so much for putting them in one place. Starting early, great covers and more photo less words. I always try to go with faces, eyes pull people in along with any other photos as appropriate inside.

    Also thinking about making it electronic friendly for website viewing and emailing. Some get so big they are difficult to open or email. A most common distribution method these days along with mailing.

    Thanks again!
    Barbara Talisman

  2. Pam Says:

    Excellent post!

    I once had the colossal job of putting together an annual report for a $6 m organization in 4 weeks! We’re talking writing, designing and mailing! And they were a social service org and had gone thru a computer system change & had very few verifiable stats to go on! YIKES.

    I centered the theme on one of gratitude – for our funders, our clients, our individual donors – and the future & somehow pulled it off.

  3. Kate Rugani Says:

    Gayle and Linda,

    These are great tips! Thanks for compiling them.

    Linda’s point about choosing effective photos is right on. The photos should be great quality and able tell a story in their own right. Otherwise, they’re not pulling their weight. I just posted an article about how to select (or create) powerful images for your publications:

    To add to Linda’s list: In my experience, well constructed graphs, flowcharts or other graphics can also pack a big punch, explaining complex concepts succinctly. This is particularly useful when space is at a premium. A good designer can be instrumental in helping you think through and develop compelling visuals.

    Love your blog!
    Kate Rugani

  4. Deborah Mourey Says:

    good stuff. couple of suggestions
    one is to work to tell the story through the eyes of various constituents, a board member, someone your org or co helps (client or customer), an employee etc.
    The story needs to be compelling. I agree completely with the charts and graphs. so much info can be relayed this way.

    With our last annual report, we made it a self mailer and saved a lot of money on mailing costs.

    Talk about what the money the donations have built, contributed, etc, be specific. Everyone wants to know what their money went for.

    don’t forget a call to action! Best, Deborah

  5. Shakila Says:

    Great tips.

    I am part of a volunteer run organization on shoe string budget and almost no funds for the publication of our annual report. We cannot afford a writer/designer. All is done by members while having our full time jobs, etc.
    Any tips?

    • IMPACTMAX Says:

      Shakila–This is Gayle, and I’m going to answer your question from a general communications standpoint…knowing nothing about your particular organization.

      Before I do that I want to point out the great comments Hank makes below about small NPOs. Also below, Shawn suggests trying for a pro bono contract with a local communications firm. May be worth a shot.

      Also, you might want to start recruiting some volunteers that have communications expertise to help you out with these projects in the future…writers, designers, media relations professionals, web designers, bloggers, etc. Creatives are usually pretty generous with their expertise if they get excited about your organization.

      OK–my first question to you would be—do you really need an annual report? Have you produced one in the past? Would your supporters be disappointed if you didn’t produce one? Would anyone notice? If the answer to those is no, then devote your small budget to higher priority communications needs.

      If the answer to those is yes, than I’d advise that you take a step back from thinking in terms of an “annual report,” and instead think about what your need to communicate really is. Do you need to convey the impact/value of your nonprofit? If so, who you need to reach with that information, and why? What do you want them to do as a result of your communication?

      Get very specific and concrete about the objectives of your communication—is your main goal awareness raising? fund raising? volunteer recruitment? or something else? Every communication should have an explicit purpose behind it–don’t do it just because everyone else is doing it.

      Once you’re crystal clear on the objective of the communication and the key audiences, you can start pulling together the content—stories, images, data, etc. (Stories are key.)

      At the same time, think about all the possibilities for HOW you can deliver this information–including low-cost online options. Could this be something that’s done through email? Do you have a website or blog you could use as a delivery vehicle?

      There are so many FREE digital storytelling tools out there now–photostory3, animato, yodio, prezi, etc. (I’ve covered two of those in past posts and will cover prezi later this week and photostory3 in the future.) Do you have good photos? Can you get them? Is there someone on your staff who already knows something about these online tools or could learn to use them? If you’re not writers, think about letting your beneficiaries talk for themselves—through quotes and photos or even video snippets. They are your most powerful testimonials.

      What I’m saying is that it might be better to think about alternate delivery systems for your “annual report” rather than costly paper, design, and postage. (I don’t advise that you try to design a traditional, paper annual report yourselves, unless you think a home-made touch suits your communications objective and would be appreciated by your audience.)

      You might also be able to use an existing or new event as a communications vehicle, by inviting a few of your nonprofit’s beneficiaries to tell their stories.

      I know it’s difficult when you’re operating on a shoe-string budget with volunteers–you have to be more focused and creative. But the first step is getting clear about what you want the end result of your communication to be and who you want to reach. The content and vehicle kind of grow organically out of that clarity. Your communication may end up being something entirely different than a traditional annual report, and more effective.

      I hope this helps…even a little.

  6. Amy Harbison Says:

    Distribution is really important and should be thought of early. Who needs to receive this publication? What audiences are you trying to reach with it? If you are printing the publication in addition to having it online, make sure you are really strategic in your list development. Do you have strong prospects on it, key influencers, connectors. Do more online than strictly having a printable book. How can you take your messages farther?

  7. Hank Osborne Says:

    Thanks, these are good tips for those who choose to print an Annual Report. However, for smaller NPOs, that may not be the best course.
    Your #4 is critical, “great opportunity to evaluate, revise, and reinforce your organization’s communications strategy.” That allows us to consider the AR as a component within the organization’s communications strategy; one that requires a reason for its existence and a follow-up ROI examination. I have worked for organizations that viewed the AR as a requirement for doing business, without considering its objective or effectiveness. A classic Heller Catch 22, NPO marketing & communications people dance between the request for a glossy AR, suitable for placing on the mahogany desk of some deep-pocketed stakeholder, and the perception that making the AR look too nice will raise suspicions about the NPO’s resource management. As a communications tool, the AR has another problem as well: it’s annual. That’s a long time. And a lot of work. And you better get rid of them fast, because they can lose relevancy sitting (as they so often do) stacked neatly in cardboard boxes.
    As you say, it all comes back to the organization’s communications strategy. For one organization that was in the process of changing its name, coverage area, corporate brand and organizational focus (did they miss anything?), I created a 24-page color insert for the area’s leading newspaper (45K distribution) for about the same price as 2K worth of glossy ARs. More recently, I advocated for a PDF-only AR, formatted so that individual pages/sections could be printed in-house as stand-alone documents and distributed. My preference—for smaller NPOs—is to keep communications as a variable expense, making use of electronic media, in-house printing and end-user-printing. Offset printing of documents should take place only after reviewing that the method is justified. As with all communication venues (print or electronic), a follow up ROI examination is required.
    Hank Osborne

  8. Shawn Middleton Says:

    Great tips Gayle. I would also like to add that there are organizations create non-profit’s annual reports for free–pro bono. Most big agencies look for “bids” and select a few each year.

  9. Joe Jeruzal Says:

    I noticed that there wasn’t much said about the content of the financial reports. How do you succintly report the financials?

    • IMPACTMAX Says:

      Hi Joe,

      This is Linda. You ask a good question that I should have addressed in my post. Transparency is critical, especially these days. The more financial information made available the better. Much of that can be on you website but communicating it in your annual report is a great opportunity to make it clear and understandable to a broad audience. It is really a decision that the leadership of the organization needs to make. Some of my clients are publishing full balance sheets, etc. But others are opting to communicate with visual charts and graphs. Remember different people distill information differently. Some people understand spread sheets while for others, like myself, it’s visual.

      Your designer can really help you find a solution. Be as detailed as possible when explaining the message and listen to them. They should ask some really good questions. I always say that once I understand it and can design something it will be understandable to the readers.

      Hope this helps.

  10. Leann Says:

    In today’s economic and environmental climate, I would suggest creating a report that is as impactful electronically as it is in print. We printed a minimal number of hard copies for distribution to foundations, donors who requested one, etc. It’s also an opportunity to make your electronic version interactive (i.e., provide more detailed information in a popout when viewers hover over a particular segment of a graph; include links from stories to opportunities to donate). This makes your annual report something that recipients look forward to and share with others — which helps create viral networking.

    The initial cost to produce may not be significantly less because you won’t get economies of scale with printing and the dual version will be labor-intensive (for the first edition). However, your ongoing cost-benefit ratio should be very favorable. With a replicable electronic framework, you can simply change the graphic look and content (not the interactive components) in subsequent years.

  11. Sudha Says:

    Gayle and Linda,

    Great post! Thanks very much for sharing your insight with us.

    Sudha S K

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