Many nonprofit professionals greet the annual reporting process with apprehension. This is because nonprofit annual reports have a bad reputation. They’re often seen as a drain on time and resources.
However, you don’t need to dread the creation of your annual report! When well crafted, this resource can be a vital tool to retain and grow donor support.
This post is designed to guide your organization through the nonprofit annual report creation process. We’ll walk you through tips to make your report as effective as possible (with helpful templates along the way to provide formatting examples). Here’s what to expect:
- What is a nonprofit annual report?
- Nonprofit annual report template
- 6 best practices for creating your annual report
- Tools for creating your nonprofit annual report
- 9 inspirational nonprofit annual report examples
Ready to dive a little deeper into nonprofit annual reports and learn how you can craft yours to maximize the impact at your organization? Let’s get started.
What is a nonprofit annual report?
A nonprofit annual report is an externally-facing resource that recaps an organization’s accomplishments and challenges within a year. The audience for this report is the donors, volunteers, constituents and other stakeholders who have been involved with the organization’s projects and programs throughout the year.
Traditionally, this report was a printed document or brochure shared with relevant stakeholders. Nowadays, annual report formats vary widely. They can be presented as PDFs, videos, interactive web pages, online booklets or in other unique formats.
Are nonprofits required to publish annual reports?
In short: no. You may be thinking of Form 990 — every year, nonprofits are required to submit a Form 990 to the IRS. This document contains information about your nonprofit’s revenue and expenses throughout the year. Because this information is publically available, supporters can use your nonprofit’s annual Form 990 to track your financial transparency.
Technically, Form 990 is the only required annual report for nonprofits. However, your annual tax form doesn’t thank your donors, make them feel proud or give them new reasons to engage and grow their relationship with you. A comprehensive annual report can fill this role. That’s why we highly recommend including a full-fledged annual report in your annual strategy.
Nonprofit annual report template
So, what should a nonprofit annual report include? Here is a basic template that can provide a starting point for building your annual report strategy:
As shown in the template, your annual report should include the following elements:
- Your organization’s mission statement. Feature your mission statement at the very beginning of the document. This will provide context for those who may not be as familiar with your organization and serve as a reminder to those who are.
- Financial information. Again, be as straightforward as possible with these numbers for transparency with your supporters. Donors want to know how you used their funds, so show them that your nonprofit is a responsible steward of their donations by providing context behind major expenses. Get specific about what you were able to accomplish by including statistics about the total number of people you helped, animals you rescued, etc.
- Projects from the year. What projects did you start? What did you finish? Which digital fundraising campaigns were most successful? What still needs to be done in order to reach your nonprofit’s goals? Include photos or videos to show what your efforts looked like.
- Appreciation for your contributors. This is a great opportunity to acknowledge and appreciate your nonprofit’s donors. You can also thank other key stakeholders like volunteers, corporate partners and board members.
Since there is no legal requirement for nonprofits to publish annual reports, there are no specific guidelines for what you must include in your report. However, if you completely omit your financial information from your report, for instance, some supporters may consider it fishy. Promoting full transparency is key to maintaining donor trust and your nonprofit’s reputation.
6 best practices for creating your annual report
Now that you have a basic understanding of the elements of an annual report, you can build on your approach to make the report as engaging and effective as possible. Here are a few best practices to keep in mind when developing your nonprofit’s annual report:
1. Incorporate your annual report into your larger strategy
Your annual report will provide the greatest long-term benefits when it supports a larger goal and strategic plan for your organization. You can recoup the time and resources spent creating the report by turning this report into a valuable donor engagement and retention tool.
For example, you can use your annual report to bolster your fundraising strategy. You can support your donor retention efforts by spotlighting top donors and partners in your report and highlighting exciting upcoming initiatives for supporters to get involved with.
You can also use the report to further your marketing approach. Consider the core messages your organization has pushed throughout the year. How can you incorporate those same messages, tone and visuals into your annual report?
Carefully thinking through the purpose of your annual report will help you create a resource that reinforces and supports your other strategic goals.
2. Create a donor-centric nonprofit annual report
Your annual report should be donor-centric to reach your audience on a personal level. Review these strategies for keeping your report centered on your supporter community:
Consider your audience
Your annual report’s format is a key decision to make and you can base the choice on what you anticipate your audience will read. Understanding your audience demographics and preferences is the first step to ensuring your annual report is designed for their needs.
You may have some donors who want all of the details about your organization’s efforts as soon as possible. They value and appreciate a book-style annual report with detailed stories, infographics and charts.
You may also have some donors who won’t sit down to read your newsletter, much less a lengthy annual report. You may consider sending a single page of infographics rather than a full report to these donors.
Apply a you-attitude throughout the document
A you-attitude is all about presenting accomplishments as your donors’ rather than your organization’s. Try to keep supporters centered at all times. For instance, compare the following sentences:
The second sentence uses you-attitude and is more likely to hold the attention of your supporters throughout a document like your nonprofit annual report. This subtle shift lets the donor know you’re truly grateful for their support.
Create visuals to feature important metrics and information
It can be overwhelming to pick up a large packet of information with pages and pages of text. Instead, break up the text with infographics, graphs and charts, images of supporters and volunteers and other interesting graphics.
Visuals make it easier for supporters to scan your nonprofit annual report and pull out the data that means the most to them.
3. Choose a nonprofit annual report format
The traditional nonprofit annual report is a book-length document. Since some donors prefer having extensive information about your organization, these lengthy reports aren’t a waste of time and energy.
Sending comprehensive annual report booklets to the right donors can pay off, like in the case of The Rhode Island Foundation. This organization published a well-designed, well-written report. They cut down on the number of reports they mailed directly (and made the report available online) but made sure to continue sending the paper version to some local lawyers.
An elderly man walked into the office of one of these local lawyers, prepared to write a will and get his affairs in order. While he waited to be seen, he picked up one of the copies of the Rhode Island Foundation annual report. He hadn’t quite known what to do with his sizable estate before that moment. Years later, upon his passing, the Rhode Island Foundation received a small fortune from that generous man, all thanks to a printed annual report.
This story illustrates the benefits of a traditional report format. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t adapt to the times. Analyze your audience and create your annual report according to what they’re most likely to respond to.
Remember that you can always post your full report online and use other formats to summarize information and invite your supporters to visit your website to view the entire document. For example, let’s review some other unique formats that you may use to convey your annual report:
Postcards are designed to be brief so that supporters can quickly and easily skim the information rather than read a lengthy document (or book). Your goal shouldn’t be to jam-pack this postcard with all of the information that you would include in a traditional report. Instead, you should highlight only the most important details.
Your postcard should:
- Convey impact and results. Due to limited space, you may need to be selective about the most important metrics to incorporate. Remember, this is the opportunity for your nonprofit to show the world the good you’ve done in the last year.
- Visually display information. Make sure the information is easy to read. Charts, graphs and prominently-displayed statistics help draw attention to the most important aspects of the postcard.
While you may not have the opportunity to include every detail in this format, you can leverage additional platforms alongside your postcard. For example, you may leave out appreciation messages for major donors in your postcard, but include a QR code leading to a virtual donor recognition wall to show your gratitude in another way.
Here is a template for what your annual report postcard might look like:
This template includes financial information, a short summary of the accomplishments during the year and key statistics that reveal the organization’s impact.
Another option for sending your nonprofit annual report is creating a 2-4 page document self-mailer. Self-mailers can be incredibly useful because they bypass the issue of getting your supporter to open an envelope in the first place since the address and postage are printed directly on the document. It’s easy for your supporters to simply open the document and read what it says.
Follow these best practices when designing a self-mailer:
- Include clearly stated next steps. When you designate the next steps supporters should take to further engage with your organization, you ensure the mailer won’t just get lost with their junk mail. By incorporating a list of upcoming events or the URL for your donation page, you increase the likelihood that they’ll keep the report for a longer period of time.
- Incorporate plenty of images. Break up the text with images to engage your readers without distracting them from the copy. Be sure the mailer is visually compelling and not overwhelming for your readers.
- Keep your copy concise. You have more space with a self-mailer than a postcard, but it’s still somewhat limited. Condense your copy to make sure it’s short, sweet and to the point, but still cover all of the important aspects of your annual report.
While this type of nonprofit annual report is designed to be physically mailed, it’s also a good idea to send a PDF version via email to gain the attention of those who might have missed it in their mailbox.
Here is an example of what your self-mailer could look like. It contains the same information we highlighted in the postcard, but in a multi-page format:
A well-designed, compelling video is a great way to not only tell your supporters but also show them the impact they made on your organization’s mission. Follow these steps to create an effective video:
- Be picky about your videographer. Video annual reports need to be professional in order to make an impact on your supporters, and hiring a videographer is the easiest way to ensure this. As you review your top options, carefully examine their past videos. If they don’t inspire you, move on. Home movie quality just won’t cut it.
- Follow a prepared script. Gather your staff’s best writers to craft the script to discuss all of the important metrics and accomplishments that you want to highlight in your annual report. The other shots in the video will support the speaker’s words.
- Use relevant footage. If your organization focuses on reducing water pollution, then show footage of rushing rivers and streams. If you help abandoned animals find new homes, incorporate clips of dogs meeting their new families for the first time. Use the video format to its fullest potential by including maps when discussing location or by featuring videos of volunteers when you discuss their involvement.
You can share your video report on your website, social media and email newsletters.
4. Choose compelling visuals for your nonprofit annual report
Your report’s images and graphics should be thoughtfully chosen. Here are a few examples of the types of visuals you might include in your annual report:
- Brand the visuals to your nonprofit. Your entire annual report should flow together cohesively. This means you should make sure your logo is prominently displayed and that your usual colors and fonts are used in images and infographics.
- Diversify the type of images you use. Instead of only including photos of your constituents or staff, diversify your images to help convey more information. For instance, pie charts are a great opportunity to display financial allocations and statistics graphics help draw the reader’s eye.
- Keep donors engaged. Don’t overwhelm your readers with too much text or too many images. Rather, there should be a healthy balance of text and images.
Images should never be distracting. They should be helpful guides when it comes to conveying important information within your nonprofit annual report.
Ask for volunteers to review the document and provide feedback about the imagery used before you send your report out. Or, you might hire a professional graphic designer to help organize all of the information in a visually compelling way.
5. Be honest and appreciative in your nonprofit annual report
Honesty really is the best policy, especially in your nonprofit annual report.
Sometimes things don’t go as planned and you may not reach a specific goal or complete a certain project. However, if you try to cover up mistakes or missed opportunities, you can foster mistrust among supporters.
If you haven’t quite accomplished one of your goals within the last year, briefly mention it in the annual report. Then, follow it up with a game plan to adjust your strategy and show your donors that you’re taking a proactive approach.
Address information such as:
- What the setback was and what caused it
- Data-informed adjustments you’re planning to make to address the issue at hand
- How and when the setback should be addressed in the future
Stay transparent about all of your nonprofit’s activities, including finances, campaign results and external threats, such as any data breaches you may have experienced.
6. Use your nonprofit annual report to look forward
Providing information about your future plans and projects will get people excited about what’s in store for your nonprofit.
When looking forward, make sure to spell out the expectations regarding your organization’s future actions and goals:
- Remind supporters about goals in progress. For example, you might provide an update as to whether or not you’re on track for the capital campaign that you started in 2022 and will wrap up in 2025.
- Get donors excited about the next long-term project for your organization. What major changes are on the horizon for your nonprofit? Let donors know what opportunities you’ll be pursuing next year to show that you’re constantly seeking new ways to grow and evolve.
Forward-facing plans excite your donors and inspire them to continue contributing in the future.
Make sure that after you’ve provided insight about your future plans, you also provide opportunities for your supporters to get involved. Provide some action items that supporters can take part in right away, such as the URL to your donation page, meeting dates and upcoming event registrations so that they can show their support.
Tools for creating your nonprofit annual report
You don’t need to be a graphic design expert or set aside a large amount of your budget to build a compelling annual report. There are plenty of free and inexpensive ways to develop your report using user-friendly online resources.
A few helpful design tools for creating your annual report include:
- Yearly, which is an annual report design tool specifically made for nonprofits. You can use the user-friendly drag-and-drop builder to design a professional, mobile-friendly report customized to your nonprofit.
- Venngage, which is a visual storytelling design tool. Using this platform, you can create branded infographics for your digital report without having to consult a graphic designer.
- Canva, which is another free graphic design tool that can help you create your annual report in multiple formats. Canva offers templates for all types of printed and digital designs, including reports, postcards, social media graphics and more.
- Visme, which is a visual communication platform for developing presentations, infographics, data visualizations, videos and more. You can try this platform for free or upgrade to a starter plan to access a wider range of features.
Choose your annual report platform based on the report formats you’re looking to create. Also, take advantage of any free trials or demos before investing in paid plans.
9 inspirational nonprofit annual report examples
It can be intimidating and hard to get started on a project when you’re just looking at a blank page. That’s why it can be so helpful to review examples to help get you started on your nonprofit annual report.
Here are seven inspirational nonprofit annual reports and the factors that make them so effective:
Feeding America’s 2023 Annual Report is a classic example of the traditional PDF annual report format. However, the nonprofit elevates this basic format with eye-catching graphic design and engaging imagery.
In the screenshot above, you can see an example of the unique way the nonprofit depicts its annual financial statement. The organization cleverly ties in its mission with the use of food imagery, giving readers a more engaging way to explore the nonprofit’s financial situation.
Elsewhere throughout the report, images showing the smiling faces of supporters, volunteers, and beneficiaries help foster an emotional connection and provide greater visual intrigue.
The Rhode Island Foundation annual report is a booklet document that takes a deep dive into the various projects and campaigns from the year. Primarily, they use pictures of supporters, beneficiaries and team members to bring their mission to life.
On the page above, we can see how the foundation used charts and spacing effectively. Rather than including these statistics in the paragraph-style text on the left side of the page, they’re pulled out and made larger and more prominent. This draws the readers’ attention to the most important data points and conveys the organization’s impact more effectively.
The Georgia River Network is an organization that promotes the protection of Georgia’s rivers and watersheds.
At the end of 2022, the organization released a brief Annual Report 2022 video with a few key statistics of the progress made throughout the year.
In the video above, you can see how the organization used bold text and lots of white space to make the numbers stand out. The video’s caption includes a call to action to support the nonprofit’s projects and programs in 2023 by donating. This gives supporters a clear way to stay involved in the organization’s future activities.
The stand-out quality of the American Heart Association’s most recent annual report is its comprehensiveness. Anyone picking up this report, whether a donor, beneficiary, or community or corporate partner, is met with a thorough overview of where the organization currently stands.
The organization’s top priorities, from improving rural health to fueling scientific research, are detailed in-depth. Maps, charts, statistics, and images are available to enhance readers’ understanding of the issues.
The report also pays homage to one of the most important groups of nonprofit donors: corporate sponsors. Each major corporate sponsor is given a specific mention and description of how they’ve supported the mission.
CaringBridge is a nonprofit that helps people stay in touch with their loved ones during a health journey using websites and digital updates.
The organization’s 2022 annual report does an excellent job of combining images, text, statistics and stories. As you can see in the image above, they even provide QR codes throughout the report for readers to scan and get more information on stories that spark their interest.
This allows readers to engage with the parts of the report that matter most to them and interact with the report on their mobile devices.
Habitat for Humanity’s 2021 annual report takes a unique spin on illustrating the organization’s mission to provide affordable housing for those in need. The report is populated with drawings created by children of Habitat homeowners.
As you scroll through the report, you can view the images along with a video explaining the project. Each drawing is accompanied by a short written passage from the artist describing what their home means to them. The combination of drawings, video and text is a compelling way to generate an emotional response in audience members, inspiring them to get involved with the organization.
The report concludes with information about ways to help out, including donating, volunteering and advocacy work. This gives motivated readers an immediate way to show their support.
Many nonprofits are taking a digital-first approach to their annual report, including Girls Who Code.
The organization’s 2021 annual report is an interactive, engaging web page that includes infographics and interactive maps, videos, photos, and news articles. The result is a visually delightful report that provides a well-rounded look at the organization’s mission to teach girls how to code.
charity: water has perfected the art of the minimalist annual report design. The organization’s 2021 annual report is straightforward and uniformly branded, creating a clean and professional look.
The report includes succinct explanations and visuals that illustrate the organization’s reach, including maps and pie charts.
This report also stands out because it marked a watershed year for charity: water— it was the first year the organization raised over $100 million. The impact of that incredible fundraising total is illuminated throughout the report.
Save the Children’s 2021 annual report also takes an effective digital approach, with a robust web page that features financial information, a year-in-review video and a link to the full 50-page annual report.
This gives supporters multiple ways to view the report based on their preferences. If they’re just interested in a quick overview, they can view the financial chart and watch the brief video. If they’re looking for a more in-depth review of the year, they can browse through the digital booklet.
Supporters appreciate having options when it comes to how they learn more about a nonprofit’s activities.
Your nonprofit’s annual reports will receive much more attention when they’re thoughtfully crafted, compelling and well-designed. Ensuring that your report is engaging and educational for your supporters will go a long way in building stronger, long-lasting relationships.
The templates and annual report examples throughout this article should help your nonprofit get started making your annual report the best it can be. If you’re looking for more information about donor communications and effective nonprofit reporting, check out these additional resources:
- The Ultimate Donor Engagement Guide + Top Strategies. Your annual report should work in tandem with your donor engagement strategies to enhance your audience interactions. This guide offers top donor engagement tips and strategies.
- How To Develop A Successful Nonprofit Fundraising Strategy. As mentioned, it’s essential that your annual report supports your organization’s fundraising strategy and other strategic goals. Review this guide for more information about developing a solid fundraising plan.
- 16 Top Donor Management Software Solutions (+ Buyer’s Guide). Your donor management software can generate reports on fundraising campaigns and donor engagement efforts to fill your annual report with rich data. Use this guide to explore top donor management solutions.