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The Nonprofit Annual Report: Do Your Numbers Tell a Story?


7 min read

Nonprofit Data Storytelling

For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have used storytelling to teach, learn, and entertain. Our brains are structured around narrative, and it's our concept of storytelling that gives us the capacity to imagine potential futures. Today, we still use storytelling to remember, explain, and predict. And now we're here to show you how it relates to your Annual Reports

Key Takeaways

  • Data Storytelling for Your Nonprofit: Using the four main elements (visual design, context for communication, data, and narrative) to successfully tell your story, will allow for a long-term donor relationship.
  • Voice, Brand, Heart & Values: 64% of consumers are belief-driven, according to Edelman's 2020 Trust Barometer report, and you can align your donors' beliefs with your own by using your annual report to reinforce your nonprofit's values.  
  • It All Starts with Your Numbers: While storytelling in an annual report helps your numbers make sense to your audience, don't lose sight of your financial data and the accuracy with which you present it.

Although you might not immediately recognize the potential between the synergy of annual reports and storytelling or even annual reports and marketing, when you connect these concepts, you'll start producing annual reports that don't just present numbers and satisfy your regulatory obligation of filing a Form 990.

Rather, you can use the information contained in your Form 990 to create annual reports that captivate your audience, thank your donors, tell the story of your organization, back it up with your numbers, and open up a universe of future possibilities that inspire giving.

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Data Storytelling For Your Nonprofit: Annual Report Checklist

In today’s world, the phrase Data Story Telling is the technical term for “communicating information, tailored to a specific audience, with a compelling narrative.” Basically, a fancy way of saying ‘using your numbers to tell a story' [1].

 Data Storytelling


Data storytelling is the most effective way to use data to create new decisions or actions. This practices focuses on a powerful combination of communication, analysis and design to create a "story"- meant to explain the data and why it matters.

Tell Your Story With These 6 Nonprofit Annual Report Best Practices

The difference between a ho-hum, traditional annual report, and an annual report that uses storytelling is the difference between telling and showing.

Telling is boring for an audience. You can tire your audience with a bunch of raw data, numbers, and plain charts, or you can wake them up and show them what your organization has done. Visualize the numbers, work your data into an understandable narrative, and humanize your nonprofit with a cast of characters (the people in your organization and the people you've helped).

Read More: Nonprofits That Make Data-Driven Decisions At Budget Time Have Better Outcomes

You can also engage your audience by choosing a more interactive format that allows them to delve deeper to discover more content about your nonprofit's history, mission, and goals.

You may have heard of the concept: 

The bottom line is: information does not lead to realization. Information informs, but if you’re looking to influence and persuade, you have to appeal to emotions. 

1. Choose a More Engaging Format

Yes, technically, nonprofits are only required to file and produce a form 990. This document serves as your legal annual report. However, no tax document has ever been described as "captivating" – probably not even by the geekiest of accountants and certainly not by your average donor.

So, the first step in building a better annual report that enables storytelling is selecting or designing a more engaging annual report template. You can choose between print and digital, but digital seems to be the most popular choice since it facilitates easy distribution and sharing, in addition to a variety of engaging media like interactive links, graphics/animations, videos, and infographics.

Be sure your template includes your organization's name (obviously, you want to make sure you get credit for all of your hard work), your financial information, your projects from the past year, and make sure you include a section that conveys some major appreciation for your donors, volunteers, board members, and staff.

2. Cast of Characters

While you should thank everyone who makes your mission possible, you should make sure you structure your entire annual report (especially video content) around a cast of characters. These characters should include the people responsible for carrying out your mission and the people and/or communities you serve.

Use your annual report to introduce donors to the people in your organization and the people and/or communities donors could potentially impact with their giving.


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3. Your Story (the Numbers)

Your story exists in your numbers, but the numbers on their own simply will not tell the story. It's essential that you display your numbers in a more meaningful way.

For example, Feeding America breaks its data down into the number of meals served – rather than the dollar amount of funding received. In their annual report, they show how many meals different funding categories provided, and they thank their donors on the same page for helping them serve over a billion meals. This takes raw data – the amount of funding received and the funding sources – and turns the information into numbers that tell the story of nourishing people [2].

Ultimately, this type of storytelling backed up by your numbers makes data more digestible, understandable, and immediately translates numbers into information that directly demonstrates impact.

4. Voice, Brand, Heart, and Values

64% of consumers are belief-driven, according to Edelman's 2020 Trust Barometer report [2], and you can align your donors' beliefs with your own by using your annual report to reinforce your nonprofit's values.

In any type of storytelling, voice (i.e. tone, word choice, point of view, and syntax) is extremely important. In the story of your annual report, you'll find your optimal voice in your nonprofit's brand. Be sure that your report is written from your organization's point of view and that you choose language and convey a mood that represents that of your nonprofit.

Read More: Successful Fundraising for NonProfits - Advice from an expert

Additionally, use your nonprofit's uniquely branded voice to clearly convey your organization's mission, values, purpose, and vision within your annual report. The brand or style of your annual report is how you connect with your audience and help your audience connect with you while building trust and helping your audience believe in you.

5. Illustrations, Fonts, Colors, and Other Visuals

Everyone knows the most engaging stories paint pictures, and some of our favorite books have their own illustrations. It follows that no narrative-driven annual report would be complete without its own visuals that create interest, give your organization a face (or many faces), further your branding and voice, make your data even more clear, and hold your audience's attention.

You can include animations, colorful/personalized charts, infographics, and videos in your annual report. Make sure the document (digital or print) is branded with your unique logo, brand colors, and fonts.

The visual tone of your report should match the overall brand personality of your nonprofit. In other words, if your brand is reserved and serious, don't choose Comic Sans for your annual report. Make sure your brand permeates every element of your annual report so that the narrative comes across as intentional, well-oriented, cohesive, and coherent.

6. Add Interactive Elements to Your Annual Report

Simply turning your form 990 into an annual report that tells a story will provide your audience with a more engaging experience. You can, however, make your annual report even more engaging by including interactive elements.

For example, with digital reports, you can include videos to play and hyperlinks to click. With the right digital marketing resources, you can even include interactive sliding charts that allow your reader to look at hypothetical impact vs. funding scenarios. (i.e. See how great our impact could be with X amount of donated dollars!)

Even in print, you can incorporate interactive elements into your annual report by asking questions or including prompts that intentionally engage your audience. For example, you can prompt your reader to calculate their own impact by including an easy-to-use, fill-in-the-blank formula for converting donated dollars to meals provided, animals spayed or neutered, supplies given, etc.

Remember: It All Starts With Your Numbers

While storytelling in an annual report helps your numbers make sense to your audience, don't lose sight of your financial data and the accuracy with which you present it. Your numbers are the starting point. Although annual reports can function as an incredibly powerful marketing tool for your company, you still need to start with an accurate and timely form 990 to satisfy government rules and regulations.

Be sure you have a powerful back-office that's capable of automating your nonprofit's bookkeeping, accounting, and reporting functions. As a result, you'll not only have the raw data for creating engaging and inspiring annual reports, but you'll also be able to streamline your operation, do more with less, identify and hone in on your most impactful programs, and inspire the kind of giving that can propel your nonprofit to the next level.

Frustration from inaccurate financials ends here. Speak To An Expert.

[1] https://venngage.com/blog/data-storytelling/ 

[2] https://www.feedingamerica.org/sites/default/files/2021-02/FA_2020AnnReport_FINAL_updated0204.pdf

[2] https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2021-01/2021-edelman-trust-barometer.pdf


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