Reporting for success: the changing faces of annual reporting

Charities are increasingly turning to a variety of mediums for publishing the annual report.
But what are the benefits of creative reporting and is it worthwhile?


For most trustees, the annual report can feel like one of the
most pain-staking parts of the job. Its primary role is to demonstrate to the Charity Commission that the charity has fulfilled the legal duties expected of it. Except the reality is th at it is far more than a piece of official paperwork. Annual reports are also an opportunity for charities to demonstrate impact – not just to the Charity Commission, but todonors and the wider public, too.

Increasingly, charities are seeking to do this in creative and innovative ways that will capture the eye and attention of the reader. Over time, charities have strayed away from the title ‘annual report’ and given unique names to their report – CLIC Sargent named its 2019 report ‘Hands Up, We’re Not Perfect’ and its 2020 report ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ – in an attempt to increase engagement levels. Meanwhile, other charities have opted for digitally compelling reports that swap a majority-text document for hardhitting photographs and/or video footage.

Last year, Dementia UK became one of several charities that chose to create an entirely video version of their annual report. The video, which runs through facts and figures using animated infographics, sits alongside a more traditional written annual report (98 pages) and a more compact 28-page impact report.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace’s 2019 and 2020 impact reports consisted predominantly of
photographs. The 2019 report, ‘In pictures: 2019 highlights’ provided a powerful expose
onenvironmental abuse and showcased the work the charity has, done to safeguard the planet.

Accessible for all

It’s easy to understand why charities are increasingly turning their attention to creative annual reports. Offering engaging versions like those mentioned above means greater
accessibility for a wider range of audiences. For example, a three minute animated video – as offered by Dementia UK – gets the key facts across, without requiring readers to wade through pages of text.

Formats like this naturally appeal to more people, i.e. the average donor may want to find out more information about the charity they’re donating to, but won’t have the time to sift through a 90-page document. Providing a short, digestible and engaging version makes it easily sharable on social media and casts the net wider to attract a more diverse audience-base.

Engaging annual reports can also add value for donors, who may be unsure about how their
donations are spent. Paul Ridout, partner at Hunter’s Law says: “Take the example of the local Wildlife Trust that I support: I pay a monthly amount and receive reports that combine feedback about what the trust has done with appeals for current and future projects. I get a
clear picture of what the organisation can achieve with the money I provide, which makes me feel that my contribution makes a difference, and a sense of what the trust can achieve if I were to increase my monthly payment.”

Ridout highlights the annual report from Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity,
which “provides a mixture of personal stories, information about new treatments that are being supported by the charity, details of the charity’s welfare work as well as the usual financial reporting”.

“If you compare that approach with the dry, bare bones reporting that charities used to provide just to comply with their legal obligations, you will see how charities have converted what might once have been a regulatory compliance chore into a vital tool in engaging with funders,” he adds.

Reaping the benefits

So what are the benefits to investing time and creativity into the annual report? Aurelia Kassatly, senior manager private clients at Charities Aid Foundation suggests it helps to develop “a more symbolic relationship with your supporters”.

In a blog on the CAF website, Kassatly suggests the annual report provides “an opportunity as a charity to convey to donors, both current and prospective, what you do and how
you make a difference.

Ridout agrees, explaining that effective impact reporting can also help charities to secure funding. “Reporting affects decisions about renewing funding. It can also inform public debate about social issues: poverty in the UK is an example of this, where qualitative reporting is making a big difference to public understanding of the impact of increasing prices,” he says.

Transparency is key

While animations, infographics and photography are also useful and engaging additions to an annual report, many argue that the most important element of a successful report is one that portrays a transparent and honest reflection of the charity’s work.

For example, in 2018, CLIC Sargent released its impact report entitled ‘Hands Up, We’re Not
Perfect’. This was one of the first reports in the sector to receive huge praise for not only sharing achievements, but for being honest about mistakes made and areas for improvement, too.

At the time, Adam Petrie, the charity’s associate director of brand and marketing communications said: “An impact report that only includes achievements is the charity equivalent of an estate agent salivating about the best bits of a house but failing to mention the distinct smell of must or cracks in the ceiling. At least that’s what we think at CLIC Sargent, and it’s this mind-set which has shaped our impact report for the last two years.”

The charity has continued this theme and has consistently received praise for its tone, its approach to putting the voice of service users over corporate spiel and, most of all, its honesty about things it didn’t get right.

“There are a few reasons why transparency is important to us. The main is that we believe supporters have a right to know, because without them CLIC Sargent doesn’t exist. Sharing where we went wrong keeps us accountable and helps us learn. And the more we learn the better service we provide for children and young people with cancer, and their families,” Petrie wrote for Charity Times. “There’s another simple reason why we’re open about our failings – we know people aren’t stupid. Going back to our estate agent illustration, not many people fall for how they only focus on the good stuff, and we don’t see why a charity would expect supporters to believe everything that happened in the previous year was a rip-roaring
success. Nobody is perfect, and our supporters wouldn’t believe us if we tried to suggest we were.

“We believe being transparent has benefits. It helps people trust us, which is vital at a time when trust in charities remains as fragile as my toddler’s tantrum threshold. We also believe being transparent allows us to challenge misconceptions with less risk of being accused of having an agenda.”

An investment

So if an honest and transparent report is enough to generate the trust of donors, is it worthwhile spending time on producing visually engaging, but time-consuming reports?

Normandie Wragg, CEO of Nugent explains few people reference content contained within the annual report. “Although the breadth of our work is captured in our annual impact reports, I have yet to have someone reference content within the report. Where the power of the information really comes to light is in the opportunity for storytelling,” she says.

“Impact reports are not enough on their own to generate conversations with donors and other interested stakeholders, they are the accompaniment to authentic storytelling, where the nucleus of our work resides.”

Clare Mills, director of policy and communications at CFG acknowledges an innovative annual report also comes with a cost, but that it is worthwhile in the end. “There is always a cost in producing the annual report, but here at CFG we are starting to use COPE – create once, publish everywhere. With this approach, we can share our charity’s story all-year round, so that when it comes to piecing the TAR together it should feel like a natural and impactful collation of our stories, rather than a huge piece of work started from scratch,” she says.

“The fundamental issue is to demonstrate our impact, with content we can use over and over again, with different audiences and in different ways, to maximise the value of that content.”

Ridout agrees, concluding that investing in the annual report is a great way of retaining loyal funders. “Funders are answerable for the use of the funds they provide, and they may be under a duty to demonstrate public benefit, so they are looking for more than just confirmation that the money has been spent. They also like to be thanked in a meaningful way, and to know that they have made a difference,” he says.

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