Is the Annual Report Dead?

It’s no secret that our organizations’ donors have been moving and shaking in the last decade. Not a week goes by it seems without a new report on the magnitude of their migration online, social, and mobile.

One of the most exciting developments in donor communications as a result of all this has been a renewed focus on something that’s not new at all: the idea that fundraising isn’t about our nonprofit’s interests; it’s about our donors’ interests. Or to put it another way, being all “me, me, me” doesn’t cut it in a relationship.

What’s different, however, is how our uber-connectedness today has held our feet to the fire on this point at a totally new level:

What we say about ourselves is becoming less important than what our donors say about us, what they think about us, and what we say with our donors.

Where we used to have no choice but to talk at our donors, at least on a large scale, now we can talk with them (and are expected to), and they talk about us with each other.

The great news is, we know this. While we may not have realized our full potential yet, nonprofits are building vibrant communities and fostering connections on Facebook and Twitter. We are getting interactive on our websites, blogs, and in our emails, inviting our donors to share and take action. We’re even taking the conversation on the go, exploring exciting possibilities in our nascent mobile communications programs.

It’s a “let’s talk about you” world that has turned our donor communications strategy on its ear. And as our social media intern, Facebook page, blog, and mobile program say: We got that memo! We are down with all this!

But did we? Are we?

Because – curious thing – many of our organizations are still pushing out the ultimate “me me me” document, year after year.

The annual report.

For decades it’s been a mainstay of the development officer’s toolbox and a vital instrument of nonprofit accountability. It’s an important document that says a nonprofit recognizes its responsibility to its donors as investors in the organization’s approach to fulfilling its mission.

But at the same time, even with the long donor lists as the end, more often than not it also says “but enough about you, let’s talk about me.”

Is that so wrong? Until recently, no. Truth is, there are a lot of nonprofits that could do far worse than monopolize a conversation with powerful stories of their beneficiaries, interesting details about their issues and work to enact change, and their plain all-around awesomeness.

But our donors’ expectations and preferences are changing. (Apparently their brains are changing too.) And so as good communicators, we need to ask the unthinkable.

Is the annual report dead?

As we know it – words on paper, content on PDF, 2D, monologue – maybe it is. But, at least in fundraising, I believe in reincarnation. The things that are good and essential in fundraising never die; they just take different forms over time.

And so perhaps the question we should be asking isn’t whether the annual report has left the building. Maybe it’s this: are we going to greet our donors at the door with a new kind of annual report that’s in step with the way they’re thinking and behaving? Or are we going to catch up to them later – and are we willing to risk being too late?


5 Comments on Is the Annual Report Dead?

  1. Edwin says:

    “What we say about ourselves is becoming less important than what our donors say about us, what they think about us, and what we say with our donors.”

    To this comment I would say they are equally important. Social media teaches us that marketing needs to be a conversation… both speaking and listening. Nonprofits still need to get their message out through traditional communications like annual reports, but they should also be using social media to engage, listen, share and calibrate those key messages.

    Annual reports should definitely evolve. I see more reliance on PDF versions of annual reports that can be posted and shared more rapidly. Electronic versions allow you to embed links and videos to make it more interactive and engaging.

  2. Rob says:

    I agree, Moira. The old Annual Report has already passed over to the other side in our organization, but we had to stop the funeral! We needed to grab some of the “vital organs” first.

    The old “vital organs” of accountability, stewardship and outcomes are still extremely valuable to donors today; but instead of making them wait until the end of the year or the beginning of the next how about we satisfy their urge for “instantcy” and converse with them immediately about results as we track their gift’s effectiveness levels, stewardship, and accountability from that moment on. We could have a blast using technology and other tools to make it as interactive as the donor wants to be.

  3. Moira says:

    Great points Edwin and Rob! I really agree with you both on the idea of the annual report being more immediate, and readily accessible – not something that donors have to wait for until the end of the year.

    Perhaps we need to revisit the “annual” in annual report, and start thinking of how we might demonstrate accountability and outcomes in a living, interactive, web-based donor experience. I think the possibilities are vast – and exciting!

    Thanks for reading, and for your great comments!


  4. An annual report is effectively out of date the moment it is printed. And then worse still 6 months later it has no real shelf life. Even a shift to “Impact reports”, whilst maybe more relevant when they are produced are soon out of date. What’s needed is something more real time that you can direct donors and funders too i.e. online. That way, if you really must have something that people can hold in their hands you can invest time and money in producing something that does last – for example that reflects you vision and mission and your core business plan. An annual report tries to be all things to all audiences and often misses all of them. It would be better to focus your communication with an audience in mind and ask what would interest them?

    • Moira says:

      “An annual report is effectively out of date the moment it is printed” – so true, Richard! Agreed too on the annual report becoming real time, online. I’d like to see nonprofits start approaching their annual report not as a document, and not even as a living document, but as an *experience* — and an interactive one at that. Thanks for reading and sharing your great comments, Richard! Hope to hear from you again! -Moira

Add a Comment