How to get that all-important annual report right


September, since childhood the epitome of a new year and a fresh start, is now for me assessment month. As part of my freelance work for a major British funding organisation, I have just completed twelve organisational and financial assessments. To the uninitiated, that might not sound much, but in fact that entailed reading twelve different annual reports, spot checking figures, figuring out ratios of unrestricted and restricted income and seeking to establish how viable these organisations might be for the next three to five years. It is work so fiddly that few people volunteer to do it, and it pays very little money. But every little counts!

Embedded deep in assessment processes, I spend my time evaluating, reviewing and summarising the work of more than fifteen different British and European NGOs, some tiny, one or two, huge. What it gives me, though, is a brilliant insight into the very engine room of NGOs. It also highlights the differences between a really sparkling, inviting annual report, and a dull recital of the activities and challenges faced. The annual report takes up too much energy for too many CEOs of smaller charities, and in some cases you can almost feel the struggle to complete the text and cover all the bases.

Yet, the annual report is the single most important document any NGO produces, the one which goes out to all potential funders. One which I have just read was accidently left in Word format and the text had jumped erratically all over the place, – not a good look to send a potential grant maker. Another, producing a dry legal copy for use in ascertaining the financial health of the organisation, referred readers to an online version with the promise of lots of pictures, even a video, singing and dancing.

This leads me to a few words of advice for those of you embarking on your own annual report. Here’s my twelve point plan:

1. Plan to get them written well in advance of your deadline, especially if you are looking for case studies or editorial contribution from partners.
2. Block off necessary writing and editing time in your year plan, and stick to it.
3. Start sourcing brilliant pictures, with necessary permissions, especially for the front page.
4. An online version could well include a video, children recording their own activities and achievements, for example. Grass roots reporting has a huge impact.
5. Think hard who your target audience is and consider writing more than one version if necessary.
6. See the whole process as opening a window on your world. Celebrate your successes and those of your partners.
7. If you lack journalistic brilliance, consider outsourcing the writing up of the text for your annual report. It will be money very well spent.
8. Check that your figures actually do add up. You would be astonished how often they don’t.
9. Send your finance books off to the auditors in very good time. Set that date in the diary as soon as possible, especially if they will be visiting your organisation.
10. Pass the proofs round at least three people to check for errors, and have a “FOG index” overview. This useful tool can be found online. It checks written work for too long words, tediousness and incomprehension. Incomprehension would be one word it would hate!
11. When complete, save the report as a PDF file.
12. When printing annual reports, do be aware of the problems older people have reading text which is: a) very small and b) very pale or against a busy background.

Remember there are people out there who, like me, will make major decisions based on your annual reports. We are human too. Keep us informed and excited by your work.
Good luck!

Susanne Garnett
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