How to develop nonprofit annual report theme ideas

Getting ready to write your nonprofit’s annual report? Annual report writing is a meaty (and often, political) project, but it can be an opportunity to flex your creative muscle and create clarity where there was once clutter. Writing annual report copy is easier when you have a strong theme – with a complementary structure.

Here’s my step-by-step process for developing nonprofit annual report theme ideas

1. Review available background documents

Instead of asking around for updates, seek out sources of content that are already available to you. Look for reports to the board or funders, reports compiled in preparation for leadership meetings or retreats, etc. I know; this doesn’t sound like a fun step. But it allows you to quietly conduct an initial review of the year and what was accomplished.

Tip: Don’t ask each department for their ‘annual report updates’. This will lead to writing the most boring annual report ever. I’ll get back to this in a moment.

2. Interview internal stakeholders

Now that you’ve reviewed the year’s accomplishments, it’s time to get some perspective from internal players. Set aside a short amount of time to ask each person my six annual report interview questions (or your own variation).

Use these interviews to help you focus in on what was accomplished and what mattered in the reporting period, as well as to pick up on some of the language that might suggest a theme for the year. Make sure you’re speaking with your organization’s President & CEO or Executive Director during this stage, and limit the interviews to a few key leaders – preferably those who are used to representing the organization.

3. Look for nuggets in the background documents and in your interview notes

With the interviews conducted, you’ll be able to look at the various reports and other background information through a new lens. Review these documents, along with your interview notes, and start to highlight words that embody the spirit of the year.

Any time someone used an analogy, highlight it. If particularly interesting descriptive language comes up, highlight that too. For a current project, for example, I heard words like ‘momentum’, ‘voice’ and ‘unity’ along with analogies based on sports and interconnection. Make a list of the words or analogies you’ve highlighted.

4. Conduct an annual report theme brainstorming meeting

Gather a small number of key people together for a brainstorming session; I recommend someone responsible for the design/layout and someone who will eventually be signing off on the copy. Bring your list of highlighted words and phrases and use them as a launching point. Brainstorm together on how each potential theme might play out as an analogy and visual treatment in your report. You should walk away from this session with at least 3-4 potential nonprofit annual report theme ideas that align well with your organization’s brand.

5. Look for potential report structures

To figure out how you might structure your annual report, look to the assets you already have.

Can you follow the shape of your organization’s strategic plan; did you make significant strides against it in the year? Look at your communications plan: presumably, your key campaigns related to organizational priorities, so can you structure your report accordingly?

Could either of these provide a starting point, if not work directly in the report? Where else can you look for a structure that makes sense?

Note: do NOT organize your report by functional areas/departments. This will take you right back to a boring ‘everyone weighs in equally’ report, whereas you should only be highlighting the year’s key achievements.

6. Create a draft structure

Now that you’ve considered potential models, draft a structure for your report that focuses your writing on two to four main accomplishments or areas that made significant progress in the year.

7. Cross-check your themes and structures

What combinations work well together? You’re looking for a theme that lends itself effortlessly to supporting your structure. Do potential themes offer language and analogies that can be written elegantly into your report sections or subheadings?

Refer back to your brainstorming notes for ideas. Play around to find a combination of theme and structure that will support both your writing and the graphic design.

8. Google your potential themes

I could give you a long list of unoriginal, uninspired themes to avoid (some of which I’ve been guilty of using myself in the past). Instead, here’s a suggestion: when you’re getting close to narrowing down an annual report theme, search for it alongside “annual report”. If you’ve come up with the same old theme everyone else is using, you’ll find it and know you need to move on to another option.

9. Make a decision; pick an annual report theme that says something

Make your final selection (pending approval, of course) and have fun with this. Don’t be afraid to say something and pique curiosity through your annual report theme. You want to entice readers to open up your report and read it, after all.

Have fun with this and remember; you only have to live with the current theme until next year’s report!

Invest time in annual report theme development

If you’re feeling like this is a lot of work at the outset of report writing, you’re correct! But the investment in planning at the outset is well worth it, because there are many benefits to working with an annual report theme. With a strong theme and structure, writing an interesting and informative nonprofit annual report will be much easier.

Could this process work for you? How would you tweak it? What tips for coming up with nonprofit annual report themes can you add?

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