If you know your last annual report didn’t do you justice, and you want your next to really pack a punch, there are a few simple steps you can take. This is part one of a three-part blog: a step-by-step guide to the process of writing an annual report. In the second part, I’ll look at how to write persuasively and in the third, how to write key messages.
Find a designer and think about your audience
Before you do anything else, find a designer. Great design makes all the difference between a report that’s read and one that stays in someone’s reading pile. Ask around for recommendations.
Next, put together your distribution list. This will help you to think about who you’re writing for, and have them in mind throughout the writing process. Ideally, list them in order of importance to your organisation.
It helps to look at annual reports from other charities which you think are effective – ideally, collect these throughout the year. You can then give your designer (and copywriter/editor if you’re using one) a much clearer idea of what you’re aiming for.
Here are a few good examples of charity/non-profit, arts and music annual reports:
Write a brief for the designer
A brief gives a designer an outline of the scope and nature of the project so that they can assess cost and timescale.
Your brief might include:
- Number of pages – the least you can get away with, to help you stay focused and succinct.
If you’re not sure what size you want, use A4 for the brief – this doesn’t meant you have to stick to A4.
- Format and paper type (a designer can advise on this once they have your copy)
- Whether you have any a logo and other graphic design assets, corporate colours, a design style guide
- How you’ll be distributing (ie electronically, by print)
- Number of copies if printing
- Deadline for electronic version, and print version (usually a week or two later)
This is always a bit ‘chicken and egg’ and can involve a bit of to-ing and fro-ing to get a price that’s acceptable for both parties. Again, it’s worth asking around. Recently I’ve had quotes from £800 to £2,000 for a 4-8 page booklet, it all depends on the complexity of the job.
Set yourself a deadline for finalising the writing and handing over to your designer. This is really important – if you don’t, your designer not be able to deliver on time.
Identify what images you’d like to use – ideally, strong images that tell a story and reinforce your messages.
Once you’ve agreed the brief and the price, and contracted the designer – arrange a call so that you can discuss the project and answer any questions.
Starting to write
If you find it hard to get started, or feel overwhelmed with everything you want to say, a good place to start is to write a list of headings or do a mind map of all the sections your report needs to contain. These should guide the reader through why you exist, and why they should care – ie how you’re making a difference and how you’ve done that this year.
Here are some sections you might want to include (these are included in the download below):
- Who we are – our vision / the change we want to see in the world
- What we do – our mission / what we actually do
- How & why we do it – our values and our theory of change / what we believe in and how we’re making a difference
- Our impact this year
- How the money was spent
- Thanks to our funders, commissioners and partners
- Find out more
Work out some key messages
If your organisation doesn’t already have a set of key messages, it’s worth drafting a set of 3-6 short statements which summarise what you want readers to notice and remember. They should appeal to your audiences by focusing on ‘what’s in it for them’, and should talk about benefits, rather than features. They should pre-empt and answer the question ‘so what?’
Need some inspiration? See Girlguiding’s key messages.
If you’re aware of any misconceptions about your organisation or myths you want to bust, they should form part of your key messages – and they don’t just have to be addressed through words: images or charts (eg for financial information) could help.
Flesh out the sections
Once you have a framework, you can then begin to flesh it out.
Thinking about each section from a reader’s point of view – what is the most important information they need to know about this, what are the key pieces of evidence that demonstrate how you’re making a difference?
Aim for a mix of statistics, anecdotes/quotes, and stories/case studies.
This process may show you that you don’t have all the information you need. You may need to do some further analysis of data, do a follow-up interview with someone, write a story/case study, or get quotes from people who’ve benefited from your work.
If you’re pushed to the wire, you may not be able to get the information in time but at least you’ve done the thinking and will know for next year.
Here are some questions which may help you: Annual report cheat sheet – from Writing Services
Is there anything else you’ve found that you need to do or include that’s not listed here? Is anything missing from the download list? Do comment in the box below, I’d be interested to hear your top tips and experiences. In the next few weeks I’ll be publishing Part 2: persuasive writing. So if you haven’t already, do sign up to this blog to receive a notification as soon as it’s posted.