How to Plan an Annual Report for Your Nonprofit


Figuring out how to plan an annual report for your organization and not sure where to begin?

Even as the trend toward shorter publications continues to gain momentum, annual reports are substantive pieces of content. Regardless of the format, they have to pull their weight for an entire year. It can feel like they must be everything to everyone: donors, volunteers, employees and potential employees, community partners and media people. For many organizations, an annual report is a comprehensive snapshot of an organization in the span of a year.

All this considered, how do you go about planning and executing an effective annual report? How do you make it not just readable, but compelling?

I’ve produced more than a dozen nonprofit annual reports, and am in it on several pending projects right now! (Can you tell from my infrequent posting? This blog is growing cobwebs!)

I set aside some time this weekend to get some content out for my readers, so I thought it would be helpful to share my annual report process. Here’s a breakdown of how I plan an annual report.

How to Plan Your Annual Report

If you plan an annual report that should be everything to everyone, it will be bloated, watered down and ultimately ineffective. In order to determine the format, focus and theme of your report, you first have to start with your goals.

Here are the questions I ask clients when I first start an annual report project to help them define their goals:

What’s the “big why” behind this report? What are your overarching goals?

Here are some common goals:

  • Donor stewardship/expressing thanks
  • Reinforcing key messages and themes from the past year
  • Framing your work in the context of broader organizational goals
  • Showcasing your impact for funders
  • Serving as a reference for posterity
  • Cultivating recognition/buy-in among potential donors, employees, board members, policy makers and other stakeholders

Yes, this affirms that “everything to everyone” point. But clarifying your goals is the first step to prioritizing them. What matters most? Where do these goals overlap?

Who is this report for?

This closely relates to the goals, but clearly defining specific audiences can help prioritize and contextualize those goals. Many nonprofits will focus on donors for their annual reports, of course. Audiences can also include clients (patients, students/families, etc.), voters, community partners, members, etc.

Defining these target audiences in more detail can help determine what themes and messages will most resonate. Here’s a previous post that can help you learn more about your target audiences.

What do you want to say? Identify messaging, tone and overarching themes

What themes could we focus on that distill the previous year’s work and impact? What tone does the report need to strike? And what messages–explicit or implicit–does the report need to introduce, reinforce or otherwise convey?

What’s your budget?

Design, writing and creative services

Will you design your report in-house or outsource it to a designer? Who will do the writing? Do you need photography, stock photos or illustrations produced? I usually devote somewhere between 50-100 hours to develop an annual report for my clients, so it’s worth thinking about how much room you have in your schedule and whether it would be a better use of resources to outsource.

I’ll risk repeating myself to caution you to tread carefully with offers of volunteer services. There are a lot of potential pitfalls.


Printing annual reports can be a big investment. It’s important to understand early on whether your budget accounts for a full-size booklet, a micro-website, or an oversized postcard. Because I specialize in print design, that’s what I’ll focus on for this post. But you could also consider a micro-site, video or infographic.

I start gathering printing cost estimates early on in the process to ensure a concept and design are actually executable. This was an important lesson I learned last year when I imagined a booklet with a special fold-out section that, while it would have been awesome, would have also cost an extra $1,500 or so to print. We ended up retaining the core concept but reworking the design to be more economical.

Just because you don’t have $8,000 to spend on an annual report run doesn’t mean your report has to be boring. There are many options that pack big impact into a small package. Here are a few ideas:

  • Scout Books – tiny (3.5″x5″), fully customizable booklets starting at $875 for 250
  • Pocket Maps – or a similar pocket-sized guide that unfolds – this could be a great way to showcase an infographic-style report. (Starting around $720 for 250 on this particular site for a credit card-sized, single-row map.)
  • Nonprofit Marketing Guide has assembled a public dropbox to showcase small annual report formats. Check it out here!


If you’re mailing your annual report, don’t forget to factor in postage and mailing services. A good printing vendor can help you figure this out. If you aren’t registered as a nonprofit with USPS, this is a typically bureaucratic mousetrap situation, so plan ahead to take care of this if you are eligible for nonprofit rates and want to take advantage of them.

What’s your timeline?

Is there a hard deadline for your annual report (a mailing, a financial compliance deadline, an event?) Or a ballpark of when you’d like it complete?

Here’s how long it typically takes me to produce a printed annual report, from start to finish:

  • Project kickoff and creative brief/concept development – 2 weeks
  • Design and development – mockup, content budget (number of words per article/page, artwork needs, etc.), writing and full draft completion – 4-6 weeks
  • Review and revision – 2-3 weeks
  • Printing and mailing – 2 weeks

To save you the math, I typically plan for 10-14 weeks for most projects. Don’t forget to factor in whatever production time your printer gives you, plus mail delivery estimates.

Who says “go”?

This is an important point to consider with just about any communications project that involves a lot of eyes and feedback, and forgetting to answer this can really run your project off the rails.

How do you know when it’s done? Who get’s to say, “That’s enough feedback”?

As an external player in my projects, I’ve opted to go with a window of time for feedback rather than a certain number of “rounds” of revisions, because sometimes those are hard to define. (Is a single typo a “round” of revisions? No way, but where do you draw the line?)

I also am sure to have my client assign a single point-person to communicate feedback and let me know when something is approved so I’m not caught in the middle of conflicting opinions. This can be trickier to navigate internally, but I recommend having a conversation with your supervisor early on in the process so you can anticipate how the project wrap-up will go.

Answering these questions will help you build the framework for an annual report that connects with the right people, factors in your resources and actually gets finished. Stay tuned for my next post, where I’ll share my creative process for developing concepts and designs for reports.

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