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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

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Straight to trash? The avoidable, sad fate of most annual reports
Tom Ahern

November, 2009

The average lifespan of annual reports is measured in seconds. It's a big missed opportunity to please donors.

Why doesn't the typical annual report make many friends or influence more people?

Why do house flies boast arrogantly about their lifespans, just hours long, knowing that by comparison the average annual report will expire, into the nearest trash receptacle, within seconds of receipt?

Is it because ARs are often incoherent: a bunch of disconnected information throw together between two covers, with no clear message(s)?

Is it because the majority of ARs are ba-ba-ba-boring, led off with two patented yawn-inducers: the edgeless message from the executive director and the edgeless message from the chair?

Is it because the donor is honored cursorily, consigned to a list of names and a big, smiley "Thank you!"?

How do you, average AR, bore me? Let me count the ways. Here's one.

Problem: Stat-wacky

Nonprofit annual reports (ARs) sure love their statistics. But if statistics could tell a story, calculators would guest on talk shows.

Yeah, sure, it's your annual report, the place where you gather every number you can get your hands on, as a chronicle of your organization's past 12 months of activities and (donors dearly hope) accomplishments.

But that's part of the problem right there.

Few charities understand the difference between activities (which do NOT matter to donors) and accomplishments (which do). Building a shelter is an activity. Saving 8-year-old Cambodian girls from a life of prostitution (as International Crisis Aid does) is an accomplishment. Service statistics measure your activities; they do not report your accomplishments.

Never Forget, You Insiders: You understand your statistics; your poor, hastening readers do not.

Numbers are easy, of course. You count. ("We had three of these. We had 183 of these.") You publish. You're quickly done. Actually though, at that point, you're only half done.

Gulp ... the truth is (get your mom by your side; this will hurt) ... I hate to even say this aloud ... sorry, sorry, sorry ... but honestly: statistics are elitist!!!

I know: The last thing you want to be is elitist. That's simply not you!

But when you talk to people in ways they do not understand, you are talking down. Innocently perhaps. But still.

We "get" your numbers on an intellectual level. But we do not -- cannot -- understand statistics on an emotional level. You do! But that's because you're an insider.

And that is the special vitamin deficiency of stat-wackiness. Us outsiders (i.e., donors and prospects) do not have the professional knowledge to see into the thrilling/chilling truth that lurks beneath the stats.

It's up to you, development officer, friend-raiser par excellence, to REVEAL that underlying truth, through stories.

Solution: 90% stories, 10% numbers

You might have noticed: no one invites a statistician to cozy up to the campfire. So, George, tell us about your latest numbers. We're dying to hear.

On the other hand, stories, are popular -- since forever. Everyone understands stories: instantly, without translation. Relatively few, on the other hand, can truly understand your statistical evidence and its implications.  It has to do with neuroscience, but I'll leave it at that.

This e-news is getting long in tooth. Here are two sample annual reports I recommend studying, one from a community foundation, one from a child service agency. I wrote neither. Both find a fresh, dramatic way to tell the story: one through its donors, one through a timeline.

>>> Takeaway >>> An annual report does not mean you have to report results the same dull way every year. Donors hope to be entertained (they really do). Don't disappoint them. Or do: they'll quickly throw you away. Again.

Tom Ahern is just plain great! I could go on and on but - all you have to do is go to his website and see for yourself -   


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