How to Write Your Nonprofit Annual Report (+ Examples)

Ryan Jones • Nov 22, 2021
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Writing your nonprofit annual report is critical to the continued success of your organization. But it can be a daunting task. 

In a nonprofit annual report, you have to sum up an entire year’s worth of activity—the progress, setbacks, positive impacts, account balances, the lives you’ve changed, and more—and share them with donors, volunteers, supporters, board members, anyone interested in your mission. That’s a lot. 

Yet, don’t freak out. Rather than trying to wade through a comprehensive guide, you’re about to dig into an easy-to-understand primer that’s going to set you on the path toward nonprofit annual report excellence. 

Start with the six essential elements of an annual report, expand your skillset with five best practices, and finally, peruse a selection of three specially curated sample reports. Let’s get into it.

6 Sections to Include in Your Nonprofit Annual Report

  1. Message from the Executive Director
  2. Mission, Vision, and Values
  3. Program Updates
  4. Financial Statements
  5. Special Mentions
  6. Looking Ahead

While there’s room for flexibility when you’re building your report, include these six sections to ensure you’ve covered all your bases and established a framework for your project.

Nonprofit Annual Report Guide and Template by Keela and Fundraising KIT

We Made Nonprofit Annual Report Writing Easier for You!

We’ve compiled a sure-fire annual report template and a guide to ensure you pull together a document your stakeholders can get inspired about. 

1. Message from the Executive Director

As the first thing, readers see when they flip open your report, your executive director’s message is indeed essential, but it’s also not worth losing sleep over. 

Use two to three paragraphs to show your director’s personality and organization’s brand identity, highlight significant events from the last year, direct readers’ attention to exciting parts of the report, and deliver an aspirational message for the upcoming year. It’s just that simple. If your ED isn’t an exceptionally gifted writer, do not hesitate to ghostwrite it and get your boss to sign off on it before publishing.

2. Mission, Vision, and Values

This section isn’t rocket science. You already know your nonprofit’s mission, vision, and values; you just need to include them so that you can easily refer back to them elsewhere in the report. Including the mission, vision, and values statements also helps to set the report’s voice—more on voice later.

3. Program Updates

An exhaustive list of every project your organization is working on is not what you need for this section. Lists are fine, but they don’t keep readers engaged. Instead, choose programs or campaigns that were great successes or generated vital lessons. 

Even a failed program may be useful to include if it helps demonstrate a need for the upcoming year. If it was an exceptionally challenging year, use a campaign as a case study to explain how your organization dealt with issues and make recommendations for the future. Be sure to relate each update, observation, or recommendation to your mission statement.

💡 Use factual data and illustrations to highlight important parts segments of your report and show transparency.   

You can compare numbers from this year to your goals, data from the previous year, and other organizations working in your field. People love to see reliable data, and they especially love to see it laid out graphically—more on that later.

Lastly, leave out mundane program updates, staffing changes, and anything administrative. Remember, you’re trying to get readers reading to the end, and you might even be trying to convince potential donors to give. So try your best to be engaging. Administrative updates can go in an oft-neglected corner of your website.

4. Financial Statements

Transparent disclosure of revenue, overhead, expenditures, etc., is a surefire way to build trust amongst your donors. It’s up to you to include complete financial statements or just a selection of important numbers. 

Either way, you should highlight significant figures and write short narratives that explain why these numbers help understand your organization’s successes or setbacks. You may also choose to provide data from previous years to show critical changes selectively. 

An easy way to generate financial reports from the data already inside your CRM is to use Keela’s reporting and analytics tools. Keela uses artificial intelligence to create genuine insights from your data that are perfect for your annual report.

Finally, it’s a good idea to add financial goals for the coming year to give readers a sense of direction and purpose (and maybe encourage some donations).

5. Special Mentions

Your annual report is one of the most visible and enduring pieces of content your organization will publish. What better place to thank those who have been instrumental to your achievements?

Compose a sincere message of gratitude to supporters, donors, volunteers, and sponsors. Include thank you messages from those who have benefited from your programs. Thank major and corporate donors individually.

And while you want to cover your bases, don’t pen an entire ode to each donor’s excellence. Try to pare your gratitude down to include major and recurring donors. You may choose to list all donors at certain donation tiers but be reasonable about it—no one is going to read dozens of pages listing hundreds or thousands of names.

6. Looking Ahead

It stands to reason that the last section of your annual report’s focus should be on the future. After showing where your organization has been, you need to tell them where you’re going next. Be sure to include upcoming changes, goals, and your vision for the coming years.

Although your annual report is not an appropriate place for a direct fundraising ask, your concluding section can include a gentle call to action. Provide a soft ask and direction on how supporters can make contributions. 

Say ‘Thank You’ The Right Way

We know creating a thank you letter or email from scratch can be a challenge. We create a guide and 7 customizable templates to thank donors, volunteers, sponsors, and other stakeholders!

Best Practices to Make Your Nonprofit Annual Report Shine

  1. Nail your organization’s tone and voice
  2. Make it donor-centered
  3. Use multimedia content
  4. Support your stories and summaries with data
  5. Edit and proofread your nonprofit annual report

1. Nail your Organization’s Tone and Voice

💡 The tone and voice with which you write your nonprofit annual report are as important as the information you’re conveying. 

Fortunately, you’ve already done some of the legwork: by including your existing mission, vision, and values, you’ve given yourself and your audience a baseline voice that can be carried through the rest of the report.

Grammarly says that voice is “the aspect of the brand that doesn’t change.” Voice refers to the word choice, style, slogans, taglines, and common phrases used in your organization’s documents. Chances are you’re already plenty familiar with the way your organization writes content, but if not, have a look through your website and foundational documents to get an idea.

On the other hand, your brand’s tone is situational. It depends on your audience’s attributes — formal, casual, young, old, etc. Your audience is likely to consist of a broad cross-section of demographics; try to adopt a semi-formal tone that matches your overall brand. 

If your organization has a history of writing fun content with jokes and vivid metaphors, add some of that to your content. If you largely depend on serious, elderly, wealthy major donors, consider sticking to more formal language. 

Regardless of the audience, avoid jargon that only nonprofit insiders would know. If it’s completely unavoidable to use phrases like “donor pipeline,” be sure to explain what it means.

2. Make it Donor-Centered

When writing content that is ostensibly entirely about your organization, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this report is for, and in many cases, about your audience. Keep the donor (or sponsor, or volunteer) top of mind while you compose your content. Some easy ways to stay donor-centric:

3. Use Multimedia Content

You are not writing the encyclopedia entry for your organization; you are trying to engage your donors and stakeholders. The best way to do that is to mix it up using visual elements to break up text blocks. 

Pages of text exposition may get your point across. Still, illustrations such as photos, videos, charts, graphs, pull quotes, and other visual elements make for a more comfortable and enjoyable reading experience. This tactic helps your audience better understand complex data.

4. Support Your Stories and Summaries with Data

Making bold claims in your report is one thing; backing them up with data is another. Wherever possible, include statistics to prove your point or provide context. 

Pie charts, bar graphs, and tables are all good options; if you’re not a designer, use a handy utility like Venngage to make them beautiful and engaging; just be sure that they match your organization’s branding. Venngage also offers some handy annual report templates.

Lastly, a note about restraint: just because you have access to every number ever recorded by your organization does not mean they all have to go in your report. Make sure you’re including relevant, interesting statistics that support your content. If you need a place to start, Keela’s reporting and analytics tools are a great way to see numbers in action.

5. Edit and Proofread Your Nonprofit Annual Report

Once the bulk of your content is written, start reciting your new mantra: spell check isn’t good enough. 

Check everything you’ve written for accuracy, spelling, grammar, etc. Then have someone else check it. Then another person. No one is a perfect editor, especially when it comes to editing their work.

Pay special attention to check the spelling of people’s names, titles, and company names. Some of your audience may only look through your report to see their name in print, and they’ll be pretty disappointed to see it spelled Goerge Washington.

Need Help Writing Your Nonprofit Annual Report?

Our free annual report template and guide can assist you as you get started. The template is completely editable and makes it easy for you to communicate your nonprofit’s impact.

Annual Report Examples to Inspire You

After all that learning, it’s time to get inspired. We’ve chosen three beautiful and unique reports to get you started on your path toward annual excellence.

We only selected digital reports; we recommend going digital for a few reasons:

  • Lower cost of production: printing is expensive
  • Shareability means digital reports reach more people, which creates a better perception of transparency
  • Save trees 
  • Easy linking: provide context with links to your website
  • Digital reports can be interactive and engaging for readers.

1. National Park Foundation

Nonprofit Annual Reports: National Park Foundation's 2018 Annual Report
National Park Foundation’s 2018 Annual Report

Created in standard software like Adobe InDesign, this PDF report looks impressive and takes advantage of this organization’s incomparable access to incredible outdoor photography. Plus, a PDF is easy to print if they need to have copies in meatspace.

2. National Gaucher Foundation

Nonprofit Annual Report Examples: National Gaucher Foundation's 2019 Annual Report
National Gaucher Foundation’s 2019 Annual Report

This report makes excellent use of the tools offered by Yearly, including significant inclusion of multimedia like video, maps, charts, and more.

3. Girls Who Code

Nonprofit Annual Report: Girls Who Code's 2018 Annual Report
Girls Who Code’s 2018 Annual Report

It makes sense that a nonprofit that teaches girls to write computer code would have an annual report that takes full advantage of modern web technology. The dedicated landing page for this nonprofit annual report is lower on text than National Park Foundation, replacing it with animated content, mouse-over video, images, color blocks, and more, all on a single long-scrolling page.

Consider Yourself Primed

Well, you’ve made it through our quickstart guide to annual reports. But if you’re looking for a more in-depth look at how to write your nonprofit annual report, you will undoubtedly be interested in our comprehensive guide to annual reports. We dig deep into the nitty-gritty of keeping your supporters informed and engaged every year—and the template features puppies!

 

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The Dreaded Nonprofit 
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