Writing your charity's annual report: A 7 step plan for stress-free reporting

Writing your charity’s ANNUAL REPORT A 7-step plan for worry-free annual reporting

Make no mistake, writing an annual report can be stressful and long-winded. First there are the ever-changing legal requirements of charity reporting. Then there’s the need to please many stakeholders, including auditors, trustees and senior managers. Conflicting demands from departments with different priorities add extra complexity.

Is it possible to co-ordinate the production of your charity’s annual report without sleepless nights? You bet. I’ve written a lot of annual reports. Experience has taught me the best way to approach this yearly hurdle. I’ve condensed my knowledge into a seven step plan for worry-free annual reporting. As a bonus, you might even end up with a document you’re proud to present to colleagues and donors.


  1. START EARLY

It’s tempting to put off writing your annual report for as long as possible. But the earlier you start, the less time it will take you and the less stressful it will be. Get key individuals and departments on board as early as is practical. You’ll be able to spread the workload better and are less likely to be chasing people for missing content close to your deadline.

Take the end point – final sign off and publishing – and work backwards. Create a schedule of what needs to be done, when and by whom. Build in plenty of contingency, particularly towards the end of the project. Aim to nail down content early so you’re able to concentrate on proofing and design later on.


  1. DEFINE AUDIENCES AND OBJECTIVES

Approach your annual report like any other important piece of communication. Map out your audiences and objectives right at the start. Ask yourself who you want to read the report and what you want them to do and feel as a result. Doing so will give you the framework you’ll need to make content decisions later on. It may even affect the format of your report and the channels you use to promote it, which will help you to…


  1. MAKE A PUBLISHING PLAN

For most charities, donors are among the key audiences for the annual report. You’ll want to thank them for their contribution to your work and encourage them to carry on supporting it. A weighty printed document or a PDF hidden away in the governance pages of your website isn’t going to achieve that.

That’s where the feedback report comes in. A feedback report, or impact report, is like a mini annual report for donors. It takes the most donor-friendly elements of your annual report, such as the fundraising stats and case studies, and condenses them into a digestible format. And the good news is that if you plan these two publications in parallel, it needn’t be a lot of extra work.

I wrote both an annual report and feedback report for Practical Action in 2017/18. Read more about the project and the benefits of this approach.


  1. FOCUS ON KEY THEMES

You need some overarching themes running through your report. Otherwise, it’s likely to end up as an incoherent list of activities. As with defining your audiences and objectives, deciding a few focus areas creates a framework to drive the project forward. Nailing down your themes shouldn’t be too onerous. You should be able to find them in your strategy document and in the Looking forward section of last year’s report.

When you’ve decided your themes, your next task is to interview your CEO and Chair. This will help you write the introductory messages and the Risks and uncertainties and Looking forward sections. These are the most important narrative sections of the report. Done? Great! Now go ahead and draw out the most impactful examples of work from your colleagues to write the middle bit. That’s a skill in itself of course, and deserves a separate post.


  1. POLISH UNTIL IT SHINES

In an ideal world, you’d have a couple of weeks at the end of any major writing project to proofread the heck out it. You’d then spend many a happy hour sitting alongside your designer, tweaking the layout and images until the document was perfect. In reality, this is never going to happen. Certain things are non-negotiable though, like a thorough proofread of the finished document. Preferably by a professional. If you skip this step, your annual report will contain typos. You’re likely to spot the first of these immediately after the last printed copy has rolled off the press.


  1. GET YOUR MONEY’S WORTH

Add up how much of your time, and that of your colleagues, has been spent on your annual report. It will add up to a considerable investment. Wouldn’t it be a shame if all you did now was plonk the PDF on the website, breathe a sigh of relief and plot who you’re going to rope into writing it next year?

Instead, view your annual report as a rich source of up-to-date content. The information and images within are ripe for re-purposing on your website and social media feeds. Think about reformatting content to keep it fresh and engaging. You could turn key figures into an infographic for example.


  1. HIRE A PROFESSIONAL

If the thought of writing your annual report still brings you out in a cold sweat,  it’s time to outsource the task to an expert. I’ve written a lot of annual reports and I’ve got a lot of excellent feedback. I can work with your team to make your annual report a thing of beauty. From straightforward writing support to more comprehensive project management, let’s talk through what you need and how I can help.


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