The trouble with annual reports

30 July 2019

I’ve been having a bit of trouble with annual reports. I think I’m not the only one.

In April last year, Ruth Levine, then at the Hewlett Foundation, wrote a blog post imploring think tanks to stop wasting their money on annual reports. 

“They make me sad” she wrote, “because I have never once read any of the many thick, glossy annual reports that arrive in the mail.” 

Now, this caused me problems. On the one hand, Ruth was kind enough to put a link in her post to some of Soapbox’s digital work (thanks!!) and tag us when she tweeted about the post (thanks again!!). 

On the other hand, her post appeared on the same day that we had been asked to design an annual report for a major development think tank, and a week after being asked to design the annual report of a big international relations think tank. 

Oh dear…

Annual reports can be a beautiful embodiment of your brand identity, like this one for New America. But are they reaching the right audiences?

When annual reports turn bad

I’ve spent rather too much time in the last year having in-depth conversations with think tanks about what they need from annual reports, and I’ve come across the same complaints again and again.

The first complaint is that annual reports are time-consuming and tedious to compile and can be comparatively costly to design, print and mail out. 

The investment in time and money is not the problem per se – it’s about bang for your buck. Pretty much everyone I talk to about annual reports thinks their energy would be better spent on high-impact infographics, video or digital marketing content. Often they are right.

The second complaint is that annual reports can involve navigating complex internal politics or indulging in organisational soul searching. 

When I have meetings about annual reports, comms officers fret about who needs to be included in sign-off, how to organise projects so they make sense externally but not cause upset internally, and how they should talk about their mission. These are useful and important questions in the context of a high value project such as a rebrand, a website build or an organisational strategy. But do we really want to engage in these debates for the sake of a PDF document? And do we really want to go over them again every year? No, we do not.

The third complaint is that annual reports don’t function well for their supposed audiences and often nobody at the organisation can identify who they are actually for. The best answer is that they are for donors, but often fundraising staff don’t really use them, or don’t want to engage in producing them and some donors, such as Ruth, don’t even read them. Plus the printed or PDF annual report seems like a relic from the past – surely we need to be digital first these days to reach our audiences?

This dilemma sends a lot of our clients on a sort of perpetual cycle of disappointment. First they do an online annual report but often find it somewhat costly and the analytics somewhat disappointing. Next they do a glossy printed annual report. But again, it doesn’t hit the spot in terms of audience needs. Finally, they give up altogether and do a very basic PDF annual report to meet their reporting obligations. But that leaves staff complaining that they don’t have any good marketing materials, plus there is a feeling that a proper think tank really should have a proper annual report. And so the cycle begins again …

When annual reports turn good

Part of the problem is that think tanks are often very passive in how they use their annual reports. They mail them out to a list of people, have a pile of them in reception, maybe give them out at events and expect the dollars and the engagement to come flooding in. 

Life doesn’t work like that.

And while many think tanks struggle with annual reports, there are a few who genuinely do make them work – but that’s because they use them actively

IIED’s annual report is a shorter document structured around their theory of change

I know of one think tank director who takes a copy of the latest annual report to every external meeting. He uses it as a prompt in conversation and an active selling tool, showing people the relevant parts, marking the page for them and placing it in their hands before he goes. And it works, they read the parts he wants them to read, and then they get involved. 

And some think tanks have donors who really are very clear that they need to see an annual report. One of our clients gets the vast majority of their funding from a single donor and that donor wants an annual report. You can’t really argue with that.

Oxford Policy Management’s impact driven annual report

The truth is, that every think tank needs quality content to use in marketing, and also needs some kind of document to tell their story. So I wouldn’t recommend that you stop doing annual reports altogether until you are ready to replace them with something else. 

There are definite audience needs, and annual reports are fulfilling them to a limited degree, but we will need to define those needs better and think about what will meet them better.

The Stockholm Environment Institute’s annual report is focussed on reporting on impact to their main donors

Deconstructing the annual report

Donors are clearly a vital audience for annual reports, but there are important secondary audiences as well. 

For example policy makers, those who work in civil society and prospective staff or partners. For these people, you want to introduce to your organisation in simple, easily digestible ways. Or the engaged public, for whom you might want to showcase your mission and the positive change you make in the world. And then there are internal audiences and academic audiences who want to see particular projects or methodologies showcased or learn about stories of impact.

Let’s deconstruct the annual report. What are we trying to do and what kind of things might do a better job? 

We are trying to tell our story and encourage interaction with our organisation

In that case you need a flexible, concise piece of marketing material that gives the basics in a compelling way while encouraging those who want to find out more to do so. You want this piece to have at least a two year lifespan, while being easy to change and reprint if needed. You will want to create versions of this piece online as well as in print. Both will need to be a really creative reflection of your brand. That means innovative formats and high quality materials for print, and interactivity and mobile-first design online. 

IIED’s five year strategy sets out the purpose of the organisation in a bold and positive way

We are trying to do statutory reporting, be transparent about funding and help potential funders with due diligence

Funders want to know how their money has been spent or will be spent, who else funds you, who leads your organisation and what else have they done, what impact your work has had and what kind of things you specialise in. 

You can very quickly tick all these boxes by structuring the “about us” section of your website logically and keeping it concise. To be fair, most think tanks already do this pretty well. In my view, you don’t need to do anything else.

We are trying to showcase individual projects

How do you want people to read your document? Should they be sitting forward in their chair (reading for information) or should they be sitting back in their chair (reading for pleasure)?

The annual report is often trying to do two conflicting things: to give information about particular projects or strands of work, while at the same time purporting to be a more reflective thought-leadership document. All the while it is also trying to give a clear impression of who you are and what your brand stands for. This can be all too much for one publication.

A better way is to make information about your individual projects available as simple leaflets or information sheets (as well as on your website, of course). You could even design your marketing brochure with a pocket so you can insert separate project sheets into it. Or you could design the project leaflets so they look like they are part of a family with your main marketing collateral.

We are trying to position ourselves and express our brand

Separating out the functional elements of the annual report creates a space for thought-leadership and brand positioning. 

You want something which will encourage your audiences to sit back in their chairs and engage with your issues on your terms. Something that reflects your brand, is produced at regular intervals, and keeps people coming back for more. 

I’m a big fan of quarterly journals. Not academic journals as such – I’m talking about beautifully designed, thoughtful, accessible journals like the ones we produce for Centre for London or the Fabian Society. They provide a different sort of reading space to that of reports or marketing materials – one that allows think tank brands to stake out their own particular piece of intellectual territory. 

The Centre for London’s London Essays journal

A similar concept is the annual roundup of articles centred around a particular topic. The On Think Tanks Annual Review or Chatham House’s annual Expert Perspectives are great examples.

OK, that’s great, but should I do an annual report?

For most think tanks annual reports are, in truth, better than nothing but far less effective than we would like – especially given the time, money and effort that goes into them. So maybe don’t stop doing them overnight. But definitely do consider replacing them with a different approach and look at each of the functions of the annual report as different communications products. 

If you have someone on staff who raises a lot of money and wants an annual report as their selling tool, then you should give it to them. If you have an important donor who demands an annual report no matter what, then you should give it to them. 

But if not, here are three things you’ll need to replace your annual report, and none of them will cost a fortune:

  • You’ll need a general marketing piece, something that tells your story and carries your brand. You might call it an impact report, or base it around your organisational strategy or theory of change. But it should be short, flexible, durable and presented online as well as in print.
  • You’ll need to talk about individual projects or work strands, but you should develop simple, quick, structured information sheets. They can still be nicely designed and produced, and they should definitely be replicated online.
  • You’ll need reporting, due diligence and financial information that is easy to find on your site and allows funders to quickly tick the boxes they need to tick. Check your site, and if it doesn’t do this in a painless way then change it now.

And if you are serious about brand positioning:

  • You need your audience to sit back in their chairs and really engage on the subjects where you lead the intellectual and cultural debate. You want them to recognise your brand and keep coming back to the space you have made for reflection and discussion. A beautifully produced and curated journal or an annual roundup is a great way to do this.