Annual reviews: 10 questions charity writers should ask themselves

For most organisations, the annual review is your flagship publication. It has the biggest budget, takes the most time and involves the most people.

There’s a lot at stake, so it’s worth doing some important scoping work up front to save you time and anguish further down the line.

I’ve put together 10 difficult questions to ask yourself before you start work on your charity annual review this year.

1. What is our annual review for?

Just like any publication you produce, you should start by identifying what your annual review aims to do. Is it a fundraising document? Something to send when applying for grants or funding? A thank-you to members and supporters? A celebration? Or something else? Just one rule: it can’t be all of these things. To be effective, pick one or two key aims and write every word with those in mind.

2. Who is our target audience?

Pick two or three key target audiences maximum and write them down. Ask yourself: Why are they interested in your organisation? What information are they looking for? Ensure you write in language that resonates with your key target audiences and that your content meets their needs.

3. What do we want them to do as a result of reading?

Your annual review isn’t effective if your target audience reads it and then puts it down without doing anything. What feelings are you trying to generate? What actions will you ask for in the report? Make sure any actions you call for are ones your target audience is willing and able to take.

4. Annual review, annual report or combination?

The Charity Commission demands you publish an annual report, with finances, aims, objectives and other statutory information. Do you want to combine this with your annual review? Or do you want to publish two separate documents, with the formal one online and the reader-friendly one as a more “glossy” marketing document? Or ask yourself the most difficult question of all…

5. Do we actually need an annual review?

Charities don’t have to publish an annual review, only the formal annual report. Would your effort, time and budget be better spent creating a few more targeted and specific marketing materials than one-big, all-singing, all-dancing annual review. Annual reviews often try to do and be everything and can sometimes end up doing and being nothing. Don’t just publish an annual review because that’s what charities do.

6. How can we include people’s voices and stories this year?

Nothing will illustrate your organisation’s work better than including stories of people who are affected by your issues, who benefit from your work, or who are involved in actually doing the work. Instead of telling your reader what you achieve, show it through compelling case studies. Let people’s voices do the work for you. Start gathering case studies and carrying out interviews now. Even the odd quote is better than nothing.

7. How can we demonstrate impact and outcomes?

More than ever, donors and funders are demanding proof that your work is effective. Gather together statistics about what you do (deliver meals on wheels) and for every statistic, translate it into the impact you have (older people get healthy nutritious food once a day, and are less lonely and isolated). Look at your project evaluations and draw out not just the number of people who receive a service, but how they say they benefit and what changes they have experienced. Write about both.

8. Do we really need that chair/chief executive statement?

Your annual review is about getting people to read, understand and take action. It is not about ego. Often, your chair or chief executive’s welcome will do little more than say it has been a good year, we’re looking forward to the future and thanks to supporters – year after year after year. If it does nothing to further the aims of your report, rewrite or delete altogether. (And while we’re at it, do you really need to name check every donor and every trustee on that inside back page?)

9. Who is going to be involved, and at what stage?

Too many people demanding too big a say too many times is a recipe for going over deadline and producing a dog’s dinner that no-one is happy with. Consider holding a big “annual review lunch” at the beginning of the process and welcome all comers, but then tightly restrict who gets to see and change copy as the process develops. Don’t edit by committee. Never send round the designed review “just for any final thoughts” the day before it is due to print. You won’t make that deadline.

10. Isn’t it time we got started?

It’s never too early to start but it always seems to be too late when you do. Grab a piece of paper now and note down some key dates: information gathering, writing, design, signoff, print, distribution. See, already late aren’t you? In the long term, create an “annual review folder” to keep on your desk and throw in cuttings, press releases, statistics, reports and more throughout the year. When you do come to start, lots of your ideas and information will be all in one place.

I’d love to help with your annual review – get in touch today to discuss how we could work together.

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