Guest post: It’s your nonprofit’s anniversary? Who cares…

Rick Schwartz

Rick Schwartz

Another great guest post by Rick Schwartz.

In late 2007, I was invited  to talk to a community foundation that was going to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2008.

Coincidentally, 2007 was my own 25th wedding anniversary, and that was the basis of my perhaps controversial opening question to the community foundation’s board: “Who cares?”

Think about it. A couple celebrates a landmark anniversary. Of course it should be meaningful to them. It offers all kinds of opportunities for reflection and renewal. But why do we expect other people to care? However warm your family, however close your friends, anniversaries have a very weak gravitational pull as you move outside the hot inner core.

Apply that reality to your nonprofit, too. Who really cares that your organization is having an anniversary? Your staff? Your board? Your clients? Your funders? Your grantees (if you’re a grantmaker)? What is it exactly they should feel so excited about?

Yet many nonprofits assume that a fancy-numbered anniversary will somehow magically: 1) finally make them as famous as they deserve to be, and 2) bring in lots of money.

Actually, it’s worth a try

Despite my cynical approach, the community foundation decided it would forge ahead with a 25th anniversary celebration with me as their for the following 14 months. I think it was because I told them that their anniversary did, in fact, mean a great deal to certain key people in its fascinating mix of urban and rural, tiny and larger, poor and wealthier towns.

We just had to tell those people what that importance was. An anniversary year would be a good start. We could use the occasion to: distinguish the organization from every other organization, and bring inside circles of people closer. It’s also a perfect time to reinvigorate staff and board with the meaning and mission of the organization. I promise you, your organization will change in the course of the year.

Everyone’s anniversary means something different

So, I’m a donor to your organization. Why should I be excited about your anniversary?

The community foundation used its anniversary to tell key people four important messages: proof of permanence, legacy, achievement, and gratitude.

  • We made it! Twenty-five years ago, our founders had a dream of people creating a permanent endowment for the region. Today, $30 million later, it could declare victory, for everyone’s good!
  • Your ‘investments’ have made a difference. At the 25-year mark, we can look back and count the successes: programs launched, scholarships granted, land protected, children’s services created, etc.
  • You are a part of history! Stop and take a breath. This is no longer a two- or three-year project, but the first 25 years of history of what will become an even greater institution.
  • Thank you! Have we had a chance to thank all of you who actually planted the seeds? Can one ever say ‘thank you’ enough

What does your nonprofit’s anniversary mean?

Nine basic activities that made the difference

For the community foundation, here are what turned out to be the nine most important elements of the year. The first five prepared the soil:

  • The board and staff agreed to be ice cold clear and realistic about our goals for the year.
  • Every item we planned was judged and designed for its direct relevance to the goals. Lots of great ideas were proposed; lots were discarded if the link couldn’t be made.
  • We developed a no-surprises budget that even Ed, the CFO, could comfortably live with
  • Everyone agreed to and embraced the answers for “It’s your anniversary. So what?”Every public mention of the anniversary included the “so what?” answers.

The other four key elements were specific to this organization; your activities may be different.

  • The foundation held two lovely gatherings. The first one was at the beginning of the year for key donors and funders, former board members, and committee members. Attendees were thanked for their essential roles in the organization. They were given the official “reasons” for the anniversary and were given the first look at the schedule of activities. Finally, as “insiders,” they were encouraged to be ambassadors during this celebratory year. The second gathering was in the fall. Invitations went to the above group of insiders, but also to people more loosely connected to the foundation, grantees, and just about everyone of influence in the state.    The program and the setting were choreographed to answer the “So what?” question, but entertainingly.
  • With appropriate fanfare, the foundation gave an anniversary “gift to the community” that brilliantly represented why the foundation is such a unique organization. In this case, it was a $1.5 million gift to the local public library system.
  • The foundation created an award-winning annual report. The two-part publication is pretty spectacular (you can see it online) but the process of creating it was almost as important. The CEO and others interviewed people who had started the foundation as a dream and a promise 25 years earlier. In doing so, the report honored people who had drifted, perhaps, from the fold, and reminded them they were welcome. Their stories were heartfelt and respectful.
  • We requested, and received, editorial meetings with the daily press. The parties and the annual report brought the foundation’s existing circles closer. The gift to the community and the media work introduced the foundation to a wider public.

Sure, we had some great outcomes, but the best are yet to come

Was all the effort worth it? Some measures are quantitative:

  • A 57% increase in contributions from the previous year, despite a horrendous economy
  • Major turnouts at both events
  • The Gold award for the annual report from the Council on Foundations (yay!)
  • Governor Jodi Redl declared a “Community Foundation of Southeastern Connecticut Day”
  • Congratulatory editorials.

The anniversary year has passed. Now it’s up to the community foundation to keep that spirit of celebration alive by continuing its good work.


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.


Free tool of the week: Design Eye-Q

eye-q-captureIn a recent post on A List Apart, called In defense of eye candy, the author concludes this about attractive Web site design:

“The more we learn about people, and how our brains process information, the more we learn the truth of that phrase: form and function aren’t separate items. If we believe that style somehow exists independent of functionality, that we can treat aesthetics and function as two separate pieces, then we ignore the evidence that beauty is much more than decoration. Our brains can’t help but agree.”

This wisdom extends to all kinds of visual design beyond Web sites. Keep in mind that 2/3 of all the stimuli that reach the brain are visual, so the appearance of your communications is critical. Pleasing, well done design can play a big role in getting your communications looked at and read—no small feat in this cluttered world.

But many nonprofit staff aren’t  trained in visual design and may not know what to look for when they’re judging a designer’s work. Design Eye-Q to the rescue. Got an hour? Here’s a terrific free, 60-minute webinar that takes the mystery out of good design.

One in a series of great nonprofit resources produced by CauseCommunications, it will teach you the 10 questions you need to  ask when evaluating new Web pages, e-newsletters, annual reports, direct mail, or any other professionally designed communications.  You’ll learn about the different emotions that particular colors convey, what type face to use when, things to consider when you’re designing a logo, why eye patterns are important, and other valuable tips.

After reviewing examples of design evaluated by experts in this webinar, you’ll feel much more confident that you’re making the best design decisions for your organization and your audience. (Plus, it’s fun!)

Once you’ve done the webinar, you might want to check out Donor Power Blog’s Stupid Nonprofit Ads archive and Vincent Flander’s irreverant Web Pages That Suck (his checklists are very useful)–another source for what not to do and why. Then jump over to the Council on Foundation’s annual excellence in communication awards for an archive of some great designs in annual reports, magazines, reports, campaigns, and Web sites. The more examples you see of poorly done and well done designs, the better you’ll be able to judge what designers give you.


Free tool of the week: Stock photos online



What nonprofit isn’t hungry for great FREE photos for publications, online communications, and presentations?

I blogged a while back about flickr’s Creative Commons licensed photos, which can be used free with proper credit given to the photographer. But here’s a  list of other online sources for free stock photos, many of which are recommended by photographer Robin Good. It may take some time to find exactly what you’re after on these sites, but it an also save you photography fees in lean times.

Just a suggestion—if you use photos from any of these sources, it would be a nice idea to give credit to the photographer. These artists have been very generous to allow their shots to be used without charge for non-commercial uses. Return the favor.

  • If you want to start collecting some great generic photos, go to iStockphoto every week and download their free photo of the week.
  • For more than 100,000 free photos, go to the stock.exchng. It’s an impressive collection of high-quality photos taken by amateur photographers from around the world. (Good does mention that at times this site is hard to access because of heavy traffic.)
  • FreeRangeStock contains a collection of free high resolution photos. All photos are already sharpened, distortion corrected, and color corrected. Some have been manipulated in Photoshop to make them more effective.
  • All the images at Open Stock Photography come from Wikimedia Commons and can be used by anyone, for any purpose. A unique feature on this site is the color search where you can pick a color from the color wheel or enter the hexadecimal code to find images that match a particular color. The feature requires patience as the site searches the extensive database for matching colors.
  • Images from are organized into a handful of categories (lifestyle, business, computers, travel, etc.).
  • If you’re after photos of textures to use in your work, check out Mayang’s Free Texture Library—a collection of nearly 4,000 textures, doors, windows, signs, paint effects, and aerial views.
  • For free large format photos, go to FreeLargePhotos and drool over the gorgeous landscapes and many other kinds of photography—nearly 3,000 choices.
  • FreePhotosBank has some great stuff in a range of categories–for instance 54 free photos of currency! Who doesn’t need dollar shots these days.
  • FreeFoto is the largest collection of free photos on the internet—124,000 and counting, including 300 shots of textures.
  • StockVault offers over 13,000 free images in categories like objects, people, nature, design templates, buildings, seasonal, transportation, etc.

If you use any of these, please let me know which are your favorite sites! Good hunting…

CC photo credit: Naixn


Nonprofit Annual Reports



Disclaimer: I’m no fan of annual reports. I’ve eliminated them or slashed them to less than 10 pages at every nonprofit institution I’ve worked in—freeing up hard-to-find funds for more cost effective marketing tactics.


  • Despite sometimes stunning photography and good writing—they are predictable, superficial, and dull. They try to cover too much ground, and rarely clarify ROI for potential donors.
  • Research has long shown that they are the about the least read publication you can produce…and usually the most expensive in printing, design, and staff time. Face it—no one has this kind of reading time anymore.
  • They preach to the converted, seldom reaching new audiences of potential supporters (and if they did, few would read them anyway).
  • They’re viewed—rightly so—as blatant self-promotional selling tools, just as their corporate antecedents are selling tools.  

But once in a while an annual report comes along that makes me realize that any communications tactic—even a lifeless one—has potential if the strategy is brilliant. Take, for instance, the new one from Friends of the Children featured in Andy Goodman’s latest Free Range Thinking newsletter.

The report is not inexpensive, with great color photography and fun illustrations. But the authentic, simple, non-institutional approach pulls you right in. From the title “Jeff Williams,” it’s clear this story is about a boy, not an organization. The report doesn’t offer a smorgasbord of client or grantee profiles, or endless lists of donors or grants. Instead, it goes deep into one human being’s changed life. Talk about demonstrating ROI. As Goodman says, who would NOT read this report? And, more important, after reading it, who would not want to support this organization?

See for yourself!

Also, here’s a very interesting Chronicle of Philanthropy conversation about the latest best practices for foundation annual reports. And some good advice to nonprofits from Kivi LeRoux on creating a 4-page annual report.