Nonprofit Annual Report Must-Have Elements

January 31, 2020
10 minutes

Is your nonprofit working on its annual report? Do you have more than a vague idea for what you'll include inside this year’s edition? Sure, there are some standard pieces of annual report information that you’ll include, like financial information. But what else should be inside your report to inform and engage your audience? As it turns out, there are a number of must-have elements that'll make your nonprofit’s annual report shine.

Take a look at our must-have elements for nonprofit annual reports.

Demonstrate Vision

Annual reports are inherently a look back at the past year, but that doesn't mean your report should be all nostalgia. Give readers a taste of the year ahead by demonstrating a future vision as reflected in your director's or board chair’s message in the annual report, or a short paragraph included at the end of the report. In the statement, talk about what your nonprofit’s focus will be for the next year and reference how that's influenced by all that happened in the last year.

Reference your strategic priorities for the next year or tease upcoming changes to programs and services. By sharing a taste of this information with your annual report readers, you’ll make 'em feel like insiders and prepare them for more communications.

Top-level Financial Information

Your nonprofit has a lot of detailed financial information related to its operations. You don’t need to share the nitty-gritty of it all in your annual report, but you should disclose top-level financial information, including revenue and expenses for the last year. Most nonprofits also provide a breakdown of their major revenue and expense categories. Try transparency this year!

Here’s an example we love from the DREAM annual report.

Image from DREAM's annual report. The Financials page shows high-level stats in blue, green, and gray bar graphs and pie charts.

Highlight Key Progress in a Way That’s Honest

In addition to giving an account of the past year, your annual report is a way to celebrate the progress your nonprofit’s made towards its mission and vision. We know you’ve likely got more than a few wins you could share with your community! As you prepare to create your annual report, create a list of the top 3 to 5 accomplishments that you’ll highlight in the report.

Today’s donors value transparency from the nonprofits they support. Look at your annual report as an opportunity to be honest about your progress. Maybe you only had one major home run because you faced some big challenges. Your annual report is a way to share this openly, framing it in a way that shows your supporters that you're taking those challenges to heart.

We love how Engineers Without Borders Canada does this in their failures report.

A page from the Engineers Without Borders Canada Failure Report. The page features a smiling woman holidng up a sign about fairtrade.

Donor-Centered Impact Stories

Donors are a big audience for your annual report; make it clear that donors are more to you than dollar $ign$. Highlight their key roles in your nonprofit’s accomplishments for the year through donor-centered impact stories. Find one or two awesome impact stories to include in your annual report and up the ante by telling the stories in a way that's donor-centered, meaning bringing the donor into the story in an important role.

Share Your Most Important Stats

The annual reports of yesteryears were jam-packed with program data, sometimes to the extent of being a literal bullet list of stats. Talk about boring and meaningless for readers! In this year’s annual report, prune back your stats: pick a handful of the most important or interesting metrics to share with your audience, then put 'em into graphic form to make them more visually interesting.

Inside the Girls Who Code annual report, they’ve focused on a select number of stats, like alumnae network total growth, demonstrating a growing impact.

A page from the Girls Who Code annual report, showcasing the number of GWC alumnae in a yellow-and-green dotted bar chart.

Put Your Best Faces Forward

All-text annual reports are sure to be a snoozefest! Include photos throughout your report to not only add visual interest to the document, but also to bring your readers closer to your work. Go through photos from the last year and cherry-pick the best images. If you haven’t taken many photos, make it a point to take photos in the coming weeks of staff and programs in action.

If getting photos of your nonprofit’s work is difficult because of confidentiality and privacy, consider having a series of graphics designed for your annual report.

The annual report from the Sierra Club Foundation integrates headshots with quotes to provide impact within the proper context.

A page from the Sierra Club Foundation annual report, featuring quotes and pictures of volunteers and supporters.

Triple Check Your Lists of People

Most annual reports include lists of people: board members, staff, and donors. If you decide to include one or more of these lists in your annual report, take the time to double and triple-check their accuracy, especially donor recognition lists.

Include a Call to Action

We know what you're thinking: an annual report isn't meant to be a fundraising appeal. Heeeyyy, you're right! It shouldn’t have a hard ask or a reply device. However… your community just spent all this time reading about your nonprofit’s work, which means this is a natural opportunity to present them with pathways to involvement, including volunteering, making a donation, joining your board, and so on. Don't make it a major feature in your annual report, but also don't discount it as a nice addition.

For more examples of great nonprofit annual reports and resources to show off your nonprofit's success, check out these articles:

Annual reports are a great opportunity for your organization to toot its horn, celebrate successes, and recognize everyone who helped make those successes possible. By including these must-have elements in your next annual report, you’ll be on your way to creating an inclusive report that your community will enjoy reading.

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