The annual report is a highly effective donor communication piece that can be used to strengthen relationships and demonstrating trustworthiness for your nonprofit. Great nonprofit annual reports share common characteristics, seven essentials for developing a great donor communications piece. When you get these essentials right for your nonprofit’s annual report, you’ll develop a tool that can be used with existing donors and new prospects.

Before you start writing your annual report, you need to decide what its purpose is. What do you want people to know about your organization? How do you want them to feel after reading it? Once you know its purpose, everything else in the report should support that goal.

1. Stories of People You’ve Helped

This essential is first on the list for a reason: few nonprofits do this well in their annual report. Tell great stories of beneficiaries your nonprofit organization has helped this year. These stories should be compelling, interesting, and highlight areas you want a potential donor to be more informed about.

Your annual report is an opportunity to showcase the real-life impact of your work through stories from those you have served. These stories should be personal and inspiring, giving donors a glimpse into the difference their support makes in people’s lives. Be sure to include photos or other visuals along with each story to really bring it to life.

One of the best ways to engage readers and communicate the impact of your work is through stories and testimonials from the people you serve. These personal accounts bring your work to life and help donors connect with your mission on a personal level. Be sure to include quotes from staff, clients, beneficiaries, volunteers, or anyone else who can speak to the work of your organization in a personal way.

2. Donor Stories

People give to nonprofits because they want to make a difference in the world, and they want to be part of something larger than themselves. Your annual report is the perfect opportunity to tell the stories of the individuals who have made your work possible. When you focus on the people behind the donations, you’ll create an annual report that’s full of heart and soul—and that’s something everyone can get behind.

If you really want to engages your reader’s hearts and minds, there’s nothing more powerful than a personal story about someone who feels transformed by giving to the  organization. These stories humanize your work and emphasize its importance in people’s lives.

Donor stories humanize your nonprofit. When you focus on the individuals who have made your work possible, you remind your readers that there are real people behind the numbers. And that will make them more likely to care about your work and feel invested in your mission. Donor stories make for much more interesting reading than dry statistics. Nobody wants to slog through page after page of data—but everyone loves a good story. By featuring donor stories prominently in your annual report, you’re much more likely to hold people’s attention from beginning to end.

3. Accomplishments, Not Activities

Every year, organizations produce an annual report. This document is meant to show donors, Board members, and other stakeholders how the organization has used donor dollars to further its mission. However, all too often, annual reports contain a list of activities rather than accomplishments. As a fundraiser, it’s your job to make sure that your organization’s annual report showcases its successes rather than its busy-work. Here’s how:

Tie everything back to the mission. When writing about an accomplishment, make sure to tie it back to the organization’s mission. This will help donors see the direct impact of their donations. For example, if your organization provides meals to the homeless, don’t just list the number of meals served. Instead, explain how those meals have helped further the organization’s mission of ending hunger in your community.

Be specific. When writing about an accomplishment, be as specific as possible. Using data and concrete examples will help your readers visualize the impact of your work. For example, instead of writing that your organization raised $1 million last year, write that your organization raised $1 million through a capital campaign that engaged 5,000 donors.

Annual reports are a great way to showcase an organization’s accomplishments and engage its stakeholders. As a fundraiser, it’s important to make sure that your organization’s annual report is focused on accomplishments rather than activities.

4. Donor-Inclusive Language

Donor-focused language is language that focuses on the donor rather than the organization. For example, “You helped us achieve our goals” is donor-focused, while “we achieved our goals” is not. Why does this matter? Because research has shown time and time again that donors are more likely to give to organizations that focus on the impact of their gifts, rather than on the organization itself.

An annual report is one of the most important fundraising tools at your disposal. It’s an opportunity to show your donors the impact their gifts have made and articulate your organization’s goals for the future. But too often, annual reports are full of jargon-y language that doesn’t connect with readers. That’s why it’s so important to use donor-focused language in your annual report. Here’s how:

Your annual report should be accessible to as many people as possible. That means using language that everyone can understand—avoid jargon and technical terms whenever possible. If you need to use jargon or technical terms, be sure to explain them in plain language so that everyone can follow along.

One of the best ways to make your writing more donor-focused is to use strong verbs. Instead of saying that your organization “provides services” or “delivers programs,” try using words like “improves,” “transforms,” or “empowers.” This small change can make a big difference in the way your report is received by donors.

When describing the work of your organization, be as specific as possible. Rather than simply saying that you help “people in need,” get specific about who you serve and what needs you meet. For example, you might say that you provide meals for low-income seniors or mentor teenage mothers. The more specific you can be, the easier it will be for donors to understand the difference you’re making in the world.

5. Financials for Trust-Building

In addition to stories, it’s also important to include some concrete numbers in your annual report. This could be something like “75% of our clients saw an increase in their income after completing our financial literacy program.” Donors want to know that their money is being put to good use, and hard data is an excellent way to show this. However, be sure not to overwhelm readers with too many numbers – a few well-chosen statistics will suffice.

Data can be boring, but it doesn’t have to be! Use infographics or other data visualizations to help tell your organization’s story in an engaging way. This is a great way to communicate complex information in a way that is easy for everyone to understand.

6. Strong Displays of Gratitude

This may seem like common sense, but it’s important to actually say “thank you” in your annual report. Don’t just assume that donors will know how much their support is appreciated – make sure to express it explicitly. A heartfelt thank-you message will not only show donors that you’re grateful for their gifts, but it may also encourage them to give again in future years.

Who is the audience for the annual report? Most likely, the primary audience is your current existing donors. This audience is why your nonprofit has been able to accomplish all that you did this past year. Use the annual report to demonstrate gratitude to your supporters.

Your annual report is the perfect opportunity to really drive home the impact that each donor’s support had on your organization over the course of the year. Include stories and statistics that paint a picture of how their money was put to use and what difference it made in achieving your mission. This will help donors feel good about their contribution and more inclined to give again in the future.

Generic expressions of gratitude (“Thanks for your support!”) are nice, but they don’t pack much of a punch. Instead, try to be specific about what donors’ gifts have made possible. For example, “Thanks to your support, we were able to provide XYZ services to ABC number of people.” This helps donors connect their gifts to concrete outcomes and makes them feel appreciated as individuals rather than simply as one part of a faceless mass.

7. Call to Action

Your annual report provides donors with valuable information about your organization’s work, but it should also inspire them to support your cause. A well-crafted CTA can do just that by telling donors how they can get involved with your work. For example, you might include a CTA that asks donors to sign up for your e-newsletter, volunteer at one of your events, or make a financial contribution. By including a CTA in your annual report, you can turn casual readers into engaged supporters of your organization.

Not all CTAs are created equal. To be effective, your CTA should be specific, clear, and actionable. It should also be relevant to the content of your annual report. For example, if your annual report highlights the success of a new program, you might include a CTA that asks donors to support the expansion of that program.

Your CTA should also be visible and easy to find. Place it prominently on the cover or back page of your annual report so that it will grab attention when readers flip through the pages.

Your annual report should not only inform readers about what you do; it should also inspire them to get involved with your organization! Be sure to include a call to action, whether it’s making a donation, volunteering their time, or simply spreading the word about your work. With a little creativity, you can turn even the most mundane task—like reading an annual report—into an engaging and inspiring experience!