Top 10 tips for producing your Annual Report without losing sleep

Top 10 Tips for producing a great charity Annual Report

Top 10 Tips for producing a great charity Annual Report

It’s this time of year when many charities are preparing to publish their Annual Report and Accounts. In addition to being a statutory requirement for registered charities, your Report is also a great opportunity to demonstrate to your stakeholders (be that donors, fundraisers, volunteers, or allied organisations and policy makers) that you’ve managed your funds effectively and made a difference in line with your charitable aims during the past financial year.

Those of you working in charity communications may have been slaving over your Annual Report for several months now: co-ordinating content, working with the finance department to streamline in the audited accounts and agreeing that all important ‘Welcome’ message. Believe me, I feel your pain…over the years I’ve learnt a great deal, in some cases through trial and error, about producing an Annual Report which complies with Charity Commission requirements, as well as packing a punch with your supporters.

So here, for the uninitiated, is my top 10 list of do’s and don’ts for producing an Annual Report without the headache:

  1. Do get to grips with Charity Commission SORP (Statement of Recommended Practice). Charities with an annual turnover over £6.5 million are required to give much more detail than smaller charities. It can be tricky trying to shoe-horn in your induction process for new Trustees, or how you manage risk at the eleventh hour.
  2. Do ensure colleagues, principally fellow Directors / Heads of Departments (and your Chief Executive!) are involved at an early stage in planning, agreeing the format, purpose, and the overarching focus of the report, as well as taking on board what information their teams need to supply and by when.
  3. Do establish at the outset if your Annual Report has a broader purpose, other than fulfilling your statutory reporting requirements. Do you want to use it to help launch a new strategy or brand; celebrate the success of a particular fundraising campaign (thanking key donors – and keeping them warm for the next time); or perhaps using it to influence key policy-makers or service commissioners, by demonstrating the impact you’ve made? If so, think about how to make the content compelling and ensure that it’s clear how people can get in touch. You may decide it’s necessary to produce a separate impact report and to keep your Annual Report fairly perfunctory, whilst standing up to Charity Commission scrutiny.
  4. Do be crystal clear in your brief to your design agency (or in-house designer) about the purpose of the Report and your organisation’s brand personality. (Look no further than Red Stone if you’re looking for an agency that combines creative flair with a knack of getting under the skin of your organisation’s brand.) Similarly, ensure that you have guidelines on tone of voice and language use, if you’re using a freelance writer.
  5. Do consider which format will be most attractive to your intended audience(s). Back in the day a printed A4 landscape ‘book’ was standard, but now charities are more confident trying out different formats which are lighter and which stand out from the crowd (and therefore won’t be immediately filed under ‘recycling’). You could consider publishing your Report online and making it interactive, perhaps linking it with video testimonials. If you decide to go down the digital route, make sure it’s optimised for tablet and mobile. It should also be printer-friendly, perhaps with a separate summary document, or ‘year at a glance’ section, allowing people to zone in on the key facts and figures.
  6. Don’t scrimp on photography. They say a great pictures paints a thousand words and it follows that a great photographer is worth their weight in gold, helping to visually convey the human impact of your work. (Without hesitation I would recommend Richard Bailey, Nick David, Rebecca Marshall and Elisabeth Blanchet). It’s essential you get consent forms signed at the time (for use across all your communications channels), as trying to get consent retrospectively can be a nightmare.
  7. Don’t have a once a year Annual Report mentality. Instead, have a radar in place for gathering case studies and testimonials that relate to your charity’s impact all year round, providing you with a bank of great content to draw upon when it comes to producing your Report.
  8. Don’t leave proof-reading ‘til the eleventh hour. Allow adequate time to proof-read copy and check all the financials add up (and that figures in copy tally with the accounts) before sending it off to the designers, and ask colleagues to physically sign-off any copy which they need to ‘own’. Making extensive corrections at design stage is a hassle and may require fundamental changes to layout or pagination to accommodate additional text.
  9. Don’t assume that your stakeholders will be frothing at the bit to read your report – they won’t. Give some thought to how it will be launched as an integral part of your communications strategy. If the Report includes great quotes, case studies, or data which could be made into an infographic, think about how these might be integrated into your social media content plan, or could the publication of the Report be timed to coincide with an awareness day and media push?
  10. Don’t forget to ask stakeholders what they think of your Annual Report. What did they learn from it and importantly, were they motivated to do anything after reading – share, sign up to your blog, make a donation? Would they have preferred a digital / paper format? What would they have liked to have known more about? Build on what you’ve learnt next year.

Please post a comment if you have any more do’s or don’ts you think should be added to this list.

In the meantime, here are three charity Annual Reports which I think have nailed it:

British Heart Foundation

Great use of imagery and graphics throughout. The branding really packs a punch. Looks expensively produced, but succeeds in tugging on those supporter heartstrings – so presumably well worth the investment, as it’s clearly been used for more than just a statutory reporting exercise. Top marks!

Esmée Fairbairn Foundation

Visually exciting and really connects the reader with the difference their funding makes to beneficiaries. Love the ‘Esmée in Numbers’ spread on pages 12-13.

Mental Health Foundation

This report is beautifully structured in line with SORP and the simple design reflects the authoritative tone of voice of the organisation. Good use of supporting quotes.

Related reading:

Third Sector article on charities whose Annual Reports are failing to cut the mustard 

The Guardian Voluntary Sector Network – tips on submitting charity annual accounts


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