Many nonprofits put precious time and money into creating annual reports. These are publications that go far beyond the financial data that Charity Navigator uses to evaluate organizations. How to write an annual report that serves multiple purposes—from marketing, to membership recruiting, to fundraising—is a big concern for nonprofits these days. So what is the best recipe for creating nonprofit annual reports that meet these additional expectations?

You would think the ingredients are standard—accomplishments from the past year, a letter from the Executive Director, stories about donors and recipients, photos of events and leaders, financials with a few statistics and charts thrown in for spice, and an impressive donor list.

But I want to let you in on some important ingredients that will make your report more memorable and savory. The list comes from our own experience and what we’ve learned from other “chefs” in the field.

  • One strong message. Katya Andresen, author of Robin Hood Marketing, uses the acronym CRAM: Establish a Connection, promise a Reward, inspire Action, and make it Memorable. Andresen says, “This is key to getting our distracted audience attracted to our cause above all others.” One distinctive and consistent message is the starting point for how to write an annual report.
  • Masterful storytelling. Storytelling is a buzzword flying around the past few years. Great idea, but as Brian Sooy of suggests, you first need to find your voice to get the best stories. Your voice is what gives your stories clarity. According to Vanessa Chase Lockshin of the Storytelling Non-Profit, “Stories take our audience on a journey from thinking to feeling. We want our audiences to feel. When they move into their emotional selves, they empathize with us. When they are focused on their logical selves, it’s much more difficult to form that connection.” Create emotional connections in your stories.
  • Fresh imagery and simple vocabulary. “Adverbs are not your friends,” says Stephen King, author of On Writing. King believes in simple, clean writing and avoids using adverbs for emphasis. He says, “The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary.”
  • Be human. Tom Ahern, speaker and author of several books on donor communications, maintains that the words “you,” “me,” “I” and “yours” can raise far more money than a formal tone of writing. Let your reader feel like you are writing to him or her personally. Interact on a human level. Remember that fundamental fundraising principle—people give to people.
  • An active voice. In active voice, the subject does the acting. In passive voice, the subject is acted upon. Passive writing includes the use of any form of “to be.” An example of active writing is “Mary donated money to the church” as opposed to “Money was being donated to the church by Mary.” Stephen Kingcalls passive voice “lazy writing.”
  • Mission-driven designBrian Sooy writes, “Design choices must be purposeful and intentional, exist for the cause, be driven by the mission, and be guided by the purpose for which the organization exists.” Copy and images have to be engaging and make sense. An annual report might not be the right place for an abstract work of art, unless it is obvious how the reader can feel connected to it. Aarron Walter, author of Designing for Emotion, says, “Designers shooting for usable is like a chef shooting for edible.” 

    One of my favorite samples of annual reports using mission-driven design comes from work we did for The Papal Foundation.This organization provides grants around the world to care for vulnerable people and share the faith. We learned by interviewing major donors, however, that we were missing a key message. The Foundation would be lost in a crowd of other philanthropic Catholic organizations if we didn’t emphasize that it is the dynamic relationship with the Holy See and the opportunity to serve the Holy Father directly that makes all the difference. We have carefully integrated that message into the text and design of each annual report.
  • Intentional design. Design is not a bonus or an extravagance; it’s the behind-the-scenes engine that influences how we feel and how we act. Douglas Martin, author of Book Design: A Practical Introductionobserves, “Questions about whether design is necessary or affordable are quite beside the point: design is inevitable. The alternative to good design is bad design, not no design at all.”
  • A fresh set of eyes. In the rush to serve up your report, don’t skip the last critical step. Someone who has not been involved in the creation of the report needs to proofread every word. It’s too easy for the people closest to the text and design to skip over a missing word or overlook a distracting detail of a photo. As the architect Frank Lloyd Wright reminds us, “You can use an eraser on the drafting table or a sledge hammer on the construction site.” It’s less painful to correct a small mistake before you have 2,500 copies of the report sitting at the mail house.

Instead of going through the motions of cooking a half-baked annual report, how do you prepare one that melts in your readers’ mouths? Creative thinking, great copy and smart design are your best ingredients.