Charity Annual Reports – Tips for Success

Posted by Emma Nicol | 17 January 2014

Categories: Charity Design Third Sector

Annual review 2014 scales

The prime goal of an annual report shouldn’t be to win an award or to cut costs and do it cheaply. You’d be surprised how many times that has been the opening statement of a brief. It’s right to set your sights high and be aspirational but either of these should be a by-product of the report or review if done well, and it’s totally possible to do both.

Obligation and opportunity

There is both an obligation and opportunity in producing an annual report. Donors and funders both existing and potential, need proof that your work is effective. It’s an opportunity to lift the lid on the organisation and really celebrate achievements and impact. Reporting on impact and change can be done creatively and effectively if the following is at the heart and very beginning of the process and brief.

The 3 key focuses should be:

Who is the audience?
What format will engage them?
What do we want them to do?

The two words ‘report’ and ‘review’ are often used and it’s become confused as to the difference. The word report is the term given to the more traditional legal requirement including financial statements that every charity has to submit. The Charity Commission describes the requirement as “a concise but comprehensive review of the activities of the charity prepared by the trustees for each accounting year”. It should cover finances, governance, objectives and achievements. Building in case studies and softer content into the format are not a formal requirement but they certainly enhance the piece and are more commonly seen in reviews. This approach widens the audience but becomes a more marketing led document and not just statutory. Some organisations choose to separate the two and produce a standard format report and then publish stand alone reviews. Water Aid is an example of this approach.

There is a great deal of information about Annual Reports. A very good Best Practice Guide has published by Charity Comms which is a thorough overview, but our very simple quick summary on what the key elements of an annual report aside from financials should be are:

Who you are
Your objectives as a charity
What you’ve done this year to make those happen
The impact
How the years achievements fit into the long term strategy

Nice or necessary?

Outside of this there should be no set route of how to deliver and present that information despite there being an assumed format and order of information. For example – the ever present welcome statement from the chief executive is considered an essential staple. But it’s worth asking honestly whether it is just expected and is it in there out of historic necessity or does it really add to the report? There’s often a lot to say and how you do that needs to go back to the initial question of who are your target audience. Essentially it’s about getting people to read, digest, understand and then act. Your charity has a unique combination of personality, size and cause so use the opportunity to do something unique to your organisation either in format, voice or execution.

There are some wonderful examples of unique and creative annual reports that step away from the norm. The British Heart Foundation’s 2012 report took the form of a pocket sized life saving wallet featuring CPR instructions. The report had been designed around nice objects commonly found in a pocket – two of these examples are a ‘receipt’ showing what the charity had spent over the last year, and a ‘bank note’ showing the difference a donation can make.

The Cardboard Citizens produced their annual report as a set of 31 A6 postcards encouraging the user to send them to friends. The personal nature of the format symbolised the journeys it takes its members on through education, employment and training. The unique format lent itself perfectly to the organisation. As an aside and due to the focused, relevant creativity – both of these annual reports have been rightfully rewarded accolades.

Process and perception

Due to the broad overview nature of the project it’s important to make sure that a process is set before starting out. It’s an important document with a real opportunity and so including key people and representatives from across the organisation is essential but needs to be carefully structured to keep a reign on the deadline, focus and budget.

Often there is a concern with the perception of the reader and the organisation not wanting the review to mislead them into looking expensive. Again this can be done very effectively when the target audience and required action is defined and agreed by the team at the outset. Put parameters in place but by being open to a creative approach this will allow you to produce a document that is engaging, relevant, inspiring and instigate action in the form of donors, partnerships, awareness and education.

If all of those are in place, the report will be financially effective, an organisational success and may well then be the winner of a sparkly mantlepiece adorning award.

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