Is Your Annual Report Worth it?

Is Your Annual Report Worth it?

If you’ve been thinking about no longer printing and sending your Annual Report, keep reading.

But for you “Steven, just tell me what to do” people, here’s the summary: if you have a good donor-centered newsletter, published multiple times per year, you don’t need to send your annual report to the vast majority of your donors.

Because they don’t need it. And in all likelihood, it’s a waste of money.

Annual Reports Meet a Need… in the PAST

My personal theory is that in the past, annual reports served a useful purpose for donors:

  • They made the organization look professional
  • They made the organization look like they are good at what they do
  • They showed some of the impact that the organization made

All good things.

But here’s the Main Thing: most donors, most of the time, don’t make their giving decisions based on whether an organization is professional or good at what they do.

Smart fundraisers have figured out that most donors make their decisions based on how you make them feel. On emotions.

(I should mention that annual reports are very good at generating one emotion in donors: boredom.)

A Better Idea: Make Your Donors Feel Their impact

How do you make donors feel strong emotions? Send them a donor-centered newsletter that focuses on the donor’s role in the work your organization does, not on your organization’s role. Tell stories of individuals, and tell the stories with emotion.

Those emotional stories that show a donor what her gift did are what makes so many people give gifts in response to receiving a newsletter.

Listen to that again: when you send donors a good newsletter, donors respond with gifts.

When you send them an annual report – no matter how good it is – what do they respond with?


So you get to pick. The choice is pretty clear.

The Two Mis-directed Arguments to Send Your Annual Report

There are two arguments against cancelling your annual report. Neither hold water (in my experience) and they go something like this:

  1. “Even though donors don’t respond, we know they like it and it helps drive future gifts.” I have cancelled a bunch of annual reports over the last ten years. We have NEVER seen a drop in giving. Not even once.
  2. “We must give it to Major Donors, they need it.” No, they don’t. They do need regular Reports on what their giving has accomplished. The annual report is, at best, an OK Report. What’s far better? Customized reports that are aligned with the donor’s passions and interests. Stories of beneficiaries. Pictures of beneficiaries. Meetings on site. Etc. All higher effort than sending an annual report, and all more effective.

The Real Reason to Keep Your Annual Report

There’s one very good reasons to keep your annual report:

  • You have some Foundation partners, and/or large grantors, who require an annual report.

Then, by all means, make them one. But figure out exactly the requirements and just do that. Don’t do anything else. And print it only for them (if they even need it!).

What to Do With Your Freed-Up Time and Money

Create a donor-centered newsletter. Or if you already have one, make and send another issue. A great newsletter will outperform – and cost less than – an annual report.

Another idea we’re seeing that’s working: about once a month, have your ED send out an email that tells the story of one beneficiary. Make it feel really personal. Strip out as much of your organization’s standard email formatting as you can.

If You Are Forced To Do an Annual Report

If the Powers That Be require you to make an annual report, try to make it a Gratitude Report.

I first heard this idea from Agents of Good in Toronto. It’s a bit of a mind-hack, because the simple reframing of the name helps people see that even though the content is largely the same as an annual report, the goal of the content is to express gratitude to donors for their role. So the “Letter from the Executive” gets written to express gratitude, rather than the standard chest-thumping. The headlines are written to use the word “you,” which makes the content more likely to be read.

But here’s the thing; I think a Gratitude Report is pretty much the same thing as a donor-centric newsletter. Both of them focus on the donor’s role, not the organization. Both of them give credit to the donor.

You can do either one. Do both!

If you can’t do that, do the work to get your annual report stakeholders – the people who feel powerfully about it – to clearly define the purpose of the report and how you are going to measure success. Then measure it to see if it achieves that purpose. And think hard to see if there’s something else you could do to achieve that purpose for less money.

I bet you’ll come back to two ideas: a donor-centered newsletter or a Gratitude Report.

A Big Opportunity…

If you’re still doing a classic annual report, you have a big opportunity in front of you. How are you going to use it?

How to Start Each Newsletter Story

How to Start Each Newsletter Story.

There’s something you need to know about the stories in your newsletter.

Most people won’t read them.

Now, that can be depressing. You want people to read all the amazing things that your organization is doing. And you want people to read the writing you put so much time and effort into.

But it’s the truth that most donors won’t read everything you send them.

One of the reasons the newsletters we help our clients create are successful is because we fully acknowledge that truth – and we use it.

We turn it into a super-power, in fact.

3 Tips to Start Each Story

#1: Use your first paragraph to summarize the whole story

Your first (and sometimes 2nd) paragraph should include the following three things:

  • A statement describing a Need, or a person who was in need.
  • A statement that joyfully explains that the need was met
  • A statement that gives credit to the donor for helping meet that need

Here’s why that’s so powerful: even if your donor does not read another word, they will know their gift made a real difference – and that your organization values them.

You will have gotten your main message across, even if the donor doesn’t read the whole thing!

#2: Make it as dramatic as possible

If the first goal is to get your main message across, your secondary goal is to get them to keep reading. The way you do that is to add drama.

Make your summary (basically a short story) a dramatic one that people would like to know more about!

If they want to know more, they will keep reading.

#3: Use the word “you”

Make sure the donor knows that they played a role in the story you’re telling. So be sure to use the word “you” to speak directly to the donor. Some examples:

  • “Thanks to you, she was able to receive the treatment she needed.”
  • “But thanks to your support, all was not lost!”
  • “You are going to love how you helped him!”

Here’s how I think about it. Every newsletter story has two protagonists: whoever the story is about, and the reader/donor.

We know from experience that if people think the story they are reading is about them, they are more likely to keep reading. And your newsletter stories ARE about your donors! (Or at least they should be.) The role of your newsletter is to help donors see the effects of their giving.

In the Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat framework, it’s where you Report back to donors and tell them how their gift made a difference.

You Learned This in 7th Grade

At least that’s when I learned it. It’s when Mr. Layton taught us, “Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.”

The first paragraph of your newsletter should “Tell them what you are going to tell them.”

Do that, and more people will keep reading.

And if more people will keep reading, more people will donate!

Fundraising ADDS value to your donors’ lives

Add value.

A bit of encouragement to Fundraisers…

I hope you see your work as adding incredible value to the lives of your donors.

Too many people look at fundraising and think they are subtracting. They look at fundraising as ‘taking money from donors in order to do something worthy and great.’ They think they are bothering donors with mailings. Or twisting their donors’ arms to make donors give.

But from the donor’s point of view, it’s not subtraction. Great fundraising adds to a donor’s life by connecting their money to their good intentions. Fundraising helps donors put their values into action.

Over our two decades of fundraising, we’ve realized that our jobs are not that much about the money we help raise. It’s really about helping organizations translate how they talk about themselves into fundraising communications – letters and emails and calls that help donors see how a gift puts their values into actions.

Being a great fundraiser is not about being persuasive, or even persuading donors to support an organization.

Being a great fundraiser is really two things:

  1. Knowing what donors value, and
  2. Helping an organization communicate about itself in ways that help donors to see how a gift to the organization helps put the donors’ values into action.

For instance, most donors value ‘doing a lot for a little.’ Lo and behold, matching grants and offers with multipliers that allow donors to ‘do a lot for a little’ work like crazy.

Most donors value hearing about the impact their gift had. Lo and behold, when organizations Report back to their donors about the effects of their gifts, they keep their donors for longer, and they upgrade more of their donors.

So now it’s your turn. Take what you know about donors and use that to change the ways your organization currently talks about itself – translate that into fundraising communications that let donors see how their gifts put their values into action!

And don’t look at your work as subtraction. Look at it as adding real value to the lives of your donors. You’ll connect good people with your good work to make the world a better place for all of us!

How (And When) To Tell A Finished Story

First of all, what the heck is a “finished” story?

A finished story is a story where your beneficiary has already been helped. For example, say your organization helps homeless moms. For you, a finished story is where the mom has already been through your program, has moved out, and has a job that pays the bills, etc. If you’re a school or in the education space, a finished story is about the person who is already going to school or has graduated.

Are you with me? A finished story is where your organization has already done it’s work.

The Mistake Most Nonprofits Make

The mistake most nonprofits make is that every story they tell is a finished story.

That’s a guaranteed way to raise less money than you could be raising. Why? Because only telling finished stories has an unfortunate consequence: it diminishes the need in the mind of the donor. All donors hear about are people who have been helped, so they never emotionally feel the need your organization exists to serve, so they become less likely to give.

You can read more about this problem (and how to solve it) in our previous posts, “How to 8x Your Appeal Results” and “The Simple Outline For Appeals That Raise Money.”

So let’s talk about what you can do to raise more money and retain your donors longer . . .

When To Tell A Finished Story

This is the easy part. There are four main places and times to tell a finished” story:

  1. Your newsletter
  2. Your e-news update
  3. Your Annual Report
  4. During 1-to-1 Reports to major donors

There are, of course, other times. But those are the main times you should be sharing finished or “completed” stories with your donors.

How To Tell A Finished Story

In a nutshell, share the finished story and give the credit to your donor.

In our experience, most organizations don’t Report back to their donors often enough. And when they do, they barely mention the donor and they take all the credit. They say things like, “Last year we helped over 766 people …” or “We worked hard to save the Arts in Springfield over the summer and . . .”

We call that, “Ask, Thank, Brag” instead of the much more effective, “Ask, Thank, Report” formula.

Here’s the perspective you want: Report to your donors about what their gift accomplished. Not about what your organization did, but about what their gift did. You want to choose to look through the lens of the donor.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Mention the donor early. Make sure she knows she’s part of the story! Have the first sentence of your newsletter be something like, “Thanks in part to your generosity, the Arts in Springfield were saved!”
  • Give the credit to your donor. This is just an exercise in being other-centered. Look for places where you would say “Our [program name] served …” or “We provided $6 million worth of care …” Replace the mentions of your organization with a mention of the donor. You could say, “Thanks to your generosity, [program name] served …” and “You are part of providing $6 million worth of care.”
  • Include the “before” and the “after.” Make sure your donor knows what the situation was like before your organization got involved. That will help your donor see just how big the transformation was — and how powerful her support is.
  • Directly tell the donor that their gift helped provide the solution and caused the transformation, and highlight that sentence. Remember, your donors have busy lives and usually only look at fundraising pieces for a few seconds. Make sure it’s easy for her to see a headline or sentence that directly tells her she made a difference! Don’t hide that information — arguably the most powerful, important information the donor is hoping to hear — at the end of a long story in the last paragraph.

If you do these things you’re going to notice two incredibly powerful things happening . . .

First, your donor retention rate will increase (your donors will stick with you longer). That’s because donors will see how their gifts to your organization make a real difference. And when they see that their gifts make a difference, they are more likely to give you another gift.

Second, you’re going to start raising more money from your appeal letters. That’s because you’re going to have more donors to send them to (because you won’t be losing as many) and because donors trust you more! They see and feel that their gifts have made a difference, so they are more likely to give to you again!

So, go tell some finished stories in the right way at the right times. Then watch your organization raise more money!

Podcast: Your 6-Word Guide To Powerful Donor Newsletters


Want to know the formula to create a donor-delighting, money-raising donor newsletters? it’s simple and powerful:

Dear Donor,
You rock!
Here’s why …

This Fundraising Is Beautiful podcast (with Jeff Brooks) unpacks those 6 words into easy-to-follow advice to make your newsletter work great.

Every piece of content in every donor newsletter should fit this model. When you do that, you’ll have a newsletter that raises funds and improves donor retention by deepening your donor relationships!

Play episode #94: Your 6-word guide to powerful donor newsletters (right-click or ‘save as’ to save the file for later).

Subscribe to Fundraising Is Beautiful on iTunes.

Steal Like An Artist

There’s a book all fundraisers should read. It’s called Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon.

Here’s why. Too often small- to medium-sized nonprofits spend their limited fundraising time and budget trying to invent new ways to fundraise.

Instead, here’s what you should do . . .

Steal great fundraising ideas, and make your own version of them

That’s what Steal Like An Artist is about. It talks about the value of looking at what The Masters are doing, studying it, copying it, and then making it your own.

Picasso said, “Know the rules, so you can break them.” But too many nonprofits don’t take time to learn the rules. Some even refuse to believe the rules even exist. (I’m looking at you, Board Members!)

Here’s a list of what I think you should do:

Give $10 to 10 national nonprofits

I’ll put a list at the end of this post, and be absolutely sure to give them your snail mail address.

After you donate, watch what they send you. You’ll get a masters in fundraising for $100. Why? Because what they send you has been tested to work for their donors. You may not like it. You may not give to them again. But what they send to you is the result of millions of dollars of testing. Ignore the tactics they use at your peril. Because you might not like what they ask you to give to, but the way they ask you is something you should steal.

Have a swipe file

Most great fundraisers I know have one. It’s a banker’s box or file folder on your computer where you save fundraising ideas that look like they work. Pay attention to what the big organizations send you when they ask for money. In most (but not all) cases, they have weaponized fundraising tactics. Look at what they do, steal it, and use it for your organization.

Steal from yourself

If you did something last fall that worked really well, try it this spring. In my experience, most small- to medium-sized nonprofits operate under the mistaken belief that if something worked well with their donors they should save it until the same time the next year.


If it worked well, try it again as soon as you can. By taking the thing that works best and doing it multiple times, instead of just once a year, we’ve rapidly increased revenue for multiple organizations. One example that comes to mind; an organization that did one “shipping” appeal per year. They asked their donors to pay for the shipping costs to ship all of the donated gifts-in-kind overseas. I noticed that it worked really well, so I had them do it twice (instead of once) the first year we worked together. Those two appeals were the two best regular appeals of the year. The next year we did it four times. Worked even better!

So if you find something that works, steal from yourself and do it again soon!

Use tactics other nonprofits have success with

Here’s a simple list of tactics and strategies that we use as often as possible. You can too!

  • Matching grants. They work great.
  • Urgent deadlines. Deadlines are magic for increasing fundraising results.
  • Multipliers. Any time you can have a multiplier ($1 provides $4 of math tutoring!) your chances of fundraising success have increased. So look for gifts-in-kind or donated volunteer hours where you can ‘multiply’ the power of a donor’s gift.
  • A clear offer. Instead of just asking for support, distill a portion of your programs/outcomes down into a powerful, understandable part. Then ask your donors to do that. That’s called a fundraising offer, and they are incredibly powerful.

That’s it. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Use the tactics other nonprofits have had success with, and make your own versions of them.

And here’s a list of 10 nonprofits with great fundraising that you can learn from:

Your newsletter: The most powerful way to report

Now is a great time for you to report back to your donors and show them how their recent donation was used to make the world a better place. Your primary aim when reporting is to close the loop with the donor and show her how the problem you presented to her when you asked her for a gift has now been solved.

Reporting can take various forms including, but not limited to, in-person visits, phone calls, personal notes, letter from the executive director or video update.

Even with all of these great resources at your fingertips, your newsletter is still the most powerful way to report. It is a proven vehicle for delivering completed stories. If designed correctly, it will send a strong message to your donor that she made a big impact on your beneficiaries.

Without a doubt, delivering a donor-centric newsletter is the key to reporting success. Here’s why:

  • It puts the spotlight on the donor and the role she played in helping someone in need. When you write about your donor and tell her how great she is, her level of trust and connection with your organization increases.
  • Now that her trust and connection has increased, she is more likely to give you another gift and in some cases increase her giving. Increased retention and increased giving is an outcome of great reporting!
  • We know that donors are busy, so sending them a newsletter that is easy to read and full of great pictures and picture captions, is an efficient way to report back to your donors. They don’t need to wade through a long, detailed report. In a matter of seconds they feel great about their past giving.

The big picture thinking here is donors want to be reminded they made a good decision by giving to you. The most powerful and proven way for you to remind them is to send them a stream of great communications, including a donor-centric newsletter. Publishing them on a regular basis will send a strong message that you care about your donors, that you have good news to share, and that there is more work to be done.

Your newsletter is the most powerful way to report back to you donors, so do all you can to create and deliver the best newsletter possible.

5 Ways To Report Back To Donors With Newsletters

When I was a young fundraiser, over two decades ago, I thought fundraising was sales. I had to sell major donors the case for support and do my best to move them to give a charitable gift.

I quickly realized this was a negative equation. I was taking from the donor but never really giving back. It was then I felt the need to report back to the donor, telling them how great they were for making the world a better place, but I didn’t know how to deliver this content.

Over the years I have found the best vehicle for reporting back to donors is your organization’s newsletter. If your newsletter is designed with the donor in mind and it communicates a strong sense of how important her role is in changing the world via your organization — magic happens! Your donor feels great about their recent gift and deepens their trust in you and your organization.

When using newsletters to report to major donors, I try to leverage these five elements. They have worked really well. Here they are.

  1. You don’t need to create a separate newsletter or report for your major donors. Use the same newsletter you create for your mass donors. This will save you time and money.
  2. Show your major donors that you spent time preparing the newsletter and outer envelope. Don’t fold the newsletter. Larger packages gain attention in the mail. Since you didn’t fold the newsletter you can deliver it in a large outer envelope. Hand address the envelope and use a real stamp to deliver it!
  3. You aren’t going to send a special newsletter (point #1) but you can draft a special, custom cover letter to include with the newsletter. Address the letter to your donor, tell your donor how great you think they are, and thank them for making the world a better place.
  4. If there is a special article or section of the newsletter you want to bring to their attention, then use a post-it note, paperclip, or highlighter to mark that section of the newsletter. In your cover letter, tell the donor why you marked that section for them.
  5. As a major gift fundraiser you are always looking for a good reason to contact the donor, so call them prior to the newsletter being delivered to let them know it is on its way! During your call you can say the same things you say in the cover letter.

Just know that your major donors are people that care deeply about your mission. They care about your work and the people you serve. They care about all of this so much that they are even willing to send you money so that your good work can continue! They deserve something in return for their gift and the newsletter is the best vehicle I know of to deliver good news and appreciation to your donors.

Your Newsletter: What To Leave Out

It is newsletter season!

I’m hearing from lots of organizations who are working on their next newsletter. Either all these folks are upstanding and know their donors deserve to be Reported to, or they are smart because they know they’ll raise money and retain more of their donors if they Report. Hopefully both!

In a slight departure from the norm, this is a list of what not to do. Because sometimes knowing what not to do is more helpful than knowing what to do. So here’s a list of things to leave out of your newsletter.

Will any one of these things kill your response and drive donors away? No. But if you want to make a newsletter that more donors will read, and help you get future donations, you’ll eliminate as many of these as you can …

What to leave out of your newsletter

  • Photos of people giving or receiving big checks.
  • Photos of more than 3 people.
  • Any articles about: how great your organization is, awards won, certifications garnered, or statistical comparisons. There is one exception: if you can frame the story around a donor benefit, then it can be helpful for donors. For instance, the headline of a story about “Our Programs Among Most Effective In Nation” could be reframed to say “Proof That Your Gift Is Effective.” It’s that way of thinking that can take your newsletter from self-congratulatory advertising to a donor-retaining and money-raising publication.
  • Any articles about the organizations that you partner with.
  • Stories where there’s more information about your program or staff than about the beneficiary.
  • Any article or story that doesn’t mention the donor.
  • Type that’s too small to be easily read by a 70-year-old.
  • Anything written above a 10th grade level. (This isn’t about donor intelligence, folks. It’s about ease of readability. Because ease of readability is directly related to fundraising results. Easier to read and understand quickly? Raise more. More complex writing with a light sprinkling of jargon? Raise less.)
  • The word “we” and; “us” and; “our.” (You can actually have a couple of these, but try to have one of them for every three times you say “you” and; “your.” Remember, the most effective newsletters are about what your donor did, not what your organization did.)
  • The words “partner” and “partnering.”
  • Headlines that don’t tell your donor anything useful. (Most people will only read your headlines and picture captions. Make sure those two things communicate the message you’re trying to send!)

The pushback, and the answers

When we work with our clients, or speak at conferences, there are two pieces of pushback we get all the time from this list. Here they are, along with our responses.

“But wait, how will our volunteers/clients/partners know about the volunteer opportunity/where to go to sign up/how to work with us?”

The answer: If you want your newsletter to be worth the time and money to create, it needs to be only for donors. Most likely, you need a different publication for your non-donor audiences. Over time, we’ve seen that newsletters that are aimed at donors AND other audiences do not effectively Report to donors (and tend to harm overall fundraising). So you have to make a hard choice and make your newsletter about your donors. And only send your newsletter to your donors.

“But wait, if we don’t tell them in our newsletter, how will our donors know how great and effective we are?”

The answer: an effective newsletter absolutely tells your donors how great and effective you are, it just does it differently than most organizations are used to. Here’s why. Most donors are not asking themselves if your organization is great and effective. (Are some foundations and some major donors asking that? Of course). Most donors are asking a much simpler question. They are wondering, “Did my gift make a difference?” We’ve done hundreds of newsletters and the results are really clear. Showing your donor how her gift made a difference is FAR more effective for fundraising results (both short- and long-term) than showing her how great and effective your organization is. Because for a donor, showing her that her gift made a big difference is how you show her how great and effective your organization is.

Short, sweet summary

Your newsletter should be an exercise in giving credit away. Focus on what your donor did, not on your role. It works in friendship, and it works in fundraising!