Annual report theme: 6ix reasons your nonprofit should use one

Annual report. Gratitude report. Impact report. These are all variations on a document that summarizes and reports on your nonprofit organization’s previous year.

But are you working with an annual report theme that goes beyond those basic cover lines? Should you? In my opinion, the answer is yes.

Here are seven reasons to develop a theme for your nonprofit’s next annual report:

1. An annual report theme highlights the significance of the year

Every year of your nonprofit’s operation should be significant – but that significance might not be obvious. Developing an annual report theme helps you to think about why the reporting year in question was significant – what made it unique and why it mattered.

A theme will guide you as you determine and articulate the key messages and points of the year. It will also help you to decide on the right structure for your report.

Tip: If you can’t come up with key messages that support a theme you’re considering, it’s probably not the right one. Don’t force it!

An annual report theme will help you zero in on the key messages & points of the year. #nonprofit Click To Tweet

2. A theme will help you decide which updates to include

Here’s an insight from one of my clients, Natalie Rekai of Imagine Canada:

“A good theme is like a lens. When you are first settling on one it forces you to look at the events of the year from a broader perspective. Once you have a theme it lets you think about the details of the year more critically, and sort through 12 months of activity with a defined purpose.”

Let’s be honest: sometimes, gathering information for your nonprofit’s annual report becomes a “jockeying for position/inclusion” process. As the project lead, you know that everyone wants to include their updates but not every update should be included in this year’s report. An annual report theme will help you decide what makes the cut; if it’s not relevant to the focus of the year, it doesn’t go in.

*Sometimes, this is a bit of a chicken and egg situation since the content you have gathered will inform the theme.

3. Copywriting is easier when you have a theme

A theme will give you ideas for your writing and the language you’ll use. Once you’ve developed your theme, you’ll have a sense of the words and phrases that make sense to use and emphasize in your report, in places such as:

  • Your report title
  • Section/spread headings
  • Subheadings
  • Photo captions
  • Text boxes
  • Pull quotes

…and throughout your copy.

Note: the theme you choose doesn’t need to be explicitly stated as a title on the report cover. But establishing an annual report theme, even if you keep it quiet, still offers many of the benefits listed in this post.


4. A theme can give you ideas for your report’s format

Thinking beyond the traditional printed booklet? There are many potential annual report formats you might consider: use your theme to inspire creative ideas.

For example, an annual report theme based on an anniversary year might be presented as a foldout timeline. If you go with a data-based theme for a report that is light on copy, you might present is as an infographic poster. Producing something very simple like a one-pager, folder or postcard? Perhaps your cost-efficiency leaves money in the budget for a special theme-inspired die cut shape!

Postcard? Video? Microsite? A theme can inspire creative #nonprofit annual report *formats*. #NPMC Click To Tweet

5. A theme will inspire your annual report design

As with format, your annual report theme will influence your design choices such as colours, graphic elements and the type of photography you include – within your brand guidelines, of course. Julia Reich of Stone Soup Creative explains:

“As a trained designer it’s easy for me to link business attributes with creative solutions. So when I’m given a list of, say, brand attributes, I can translate those words or phrases into visuals that capture the essence of those concepts. It would be the same thing with an annual report theme.

For example, for one annual report, the [unstated] theme was “web”, as in a network: we decided that underlying everything should be a feeling of connection and engagement. And we had also established priorities for the feel of the report, including new, young, contemporary and fresh.These words were inspired by the sense that the organization wanted to get away from feeling of being buttoned down, to appeal to a new generation and be inspired by the fifth generation of this family foundation.

I translated this into the design by using elements such as intersecting circles and type on a curve as opposed to straight, rigid lines; and close-up, dynamic photos of children that are actively engaged in play. More subtle design choices include using a modern sans-serif typeface, and distributing little icons throughout the report that illustrate concepts such as the Foundation’s areas of focus.”

6. An annual report theme can communicate current and future objectives

Here’s a point raised by another client, Sarah McPherson at The Oakville Community Foundation:

“Annual reports are more than just facts and figures or for that matter a reflection of the past. Annual reports can and should offer organizations so much more, and having a theme throughout the report can really drive home an objective the organization is trying to achieve in the coming years. Most reports now are in fact moving further away from the financial reporting aspects, and focused on the stories, the impact, so using a theme to bring these all together, can and does have a greater and longer lasting impact.”

7. A theme gives people an incentive to read your report

Feeling the pressure to create an annual report that serves double duty as marketing material?

A theme increases the “marketing value” of your report: it gives your readers an idea of what your annual report is about – and hopefully an incentive to read it. And the more interesting, unusual or unexpected your theme is, the more likely it will attract the attention of potential readers.

Use an unusual or unexpected #nonprofit annual report theme to pique curiosity. #NPMC Click To Tweet

Have you used a theme for your nonprofit’s annual report?

An annual report theme will help with planning, developing creative approaches and generally producing a more interesting and compelling report. Which is why I consider theme development an essential step in the annual report planning process.

If you’ve worked with an annual report theme in the past, how did it help? What benefits have I missed? Please share in the comments!

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