Digital Annual Reports Rock. Why Don’t More Nonprofits Use Them?

This is a guest blog post from Matthew Sharpnick, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Elefint Designs.

If you manage communications for a nonprofit, you are likely very familiar with how much time and energy it takes to produce an annual report. These reports, which are typically created to share milestones and promote financial transparency, often take weeks or months of work.

They also carry a big financial cost.

Even though we work in an increasingly digital world, the typical annual report is still created as a print document that is mailed out to donors and other constituents – a process that comes with substantial costs for printing and shipping.

Today’s digital tools can help curtail these costs, while also providing access to important storytelling tools most organizations are already using in other communications.

My company, Elefint Designs, recently interviewed nonprofit communicators to learn more about how they create annual reports. We consistently heard about storytelling tools that digital reports offered which printed reports cannot. The two most common features were video and interactivity.

Many nonprofits are producing video throughout the year as part of their communications strategy. With the advent of YouTube and inexpensive HD cameras, even the smallest nonprofit can produce and share high-quality videos. With a digital report, your nonprofit can use the videos you’ve already created to add life and voice to your annual message to supporters.

This also applies to interactive data. Our organizations now have access to low-cost digital tools that can help us tell stories with our data in exciting and thought-provoking ways. While printed reports are extremely limited in their ability to engage an audience, digital reports can bring your data to life.

Even though many nonprofit communicators are excited about the promise of these innovations, our research found that most of them have not yet supplemented or replaced their printed annual reports with digital alternatives.

The main reason? Habit.

So how do we break this habit?

Our interviews suggest that most organizations believe their annual reports are an important touchpoint with their donors. These organizations believe that this touchpoint is especially important with their older, high net-worth donors who many organizations felt expected and enjoyed receiving the familiar reports. However, when asked about the evidence behind these beliefs, most organizations had either very limited anecdotal accounts or no evidence at all.

While it’s difficult to measure the success of a printed report, digital reports have the built-in ability to track overall views and engagement with specific sections. We might assume that a beautifully constructed print report gets read from cover to cover, but it may get scanned or ignored entirely. With digital reports, digital analytics tell us what is being seen and what is not.

To address the above issues, our studio has been researching annual reports for the last year. After seeing a number of powerful examples of print and digital reports, many which had similar elements, we produced an engaging digital platform that can be customized for individual organizations. The tool was built as a WordPress content management system, so organizations can choose to update it from year to year with little additional cost. For organizations which have a strong need to produce a print report, lower-cost summaries can be mailed out directing people back to these digital platforms for more detailed information.

Organizations with larger budgets may also wish to investigate building custom digital sites that can do all of the above and more. Those with small budgets might want to look for templatized tools or creative inexpensive solutions. For example, can you make an effective annual report using a Pinterest page, Tumblr account, or YouTube video? Give it a shot.

By investing in engaging ways of storytelling, and through the use of tools that track this engagement, organizations can greatly increase the value of their annual reports and can be more certain about their value.

Does your organization use a digital annual report? Let us know why or why not in the comments.

Want to see another digital annual report in action? Check out the Interactive Annual Report See3 created for the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Author: Matthew Sharpnick
  • Annual Reports
  • Nonprofits
  • Donors