February 18

How to write an annual report for a nonprofit organization


ChatGPT probably won’t give you an answer like us.

Here’s the honest truth.

If you want to write an annual report, you have to think of it like writing a book.

How to overcome the budget constraints

If you see the annual reports of most for profit companies, you will see snazzy graphics.

An Annual report like this will take time and resources.
An Annual report like this will take time and resources.

Don’t forget though.

Most of those companies use external design agencies to make an annual report.

But if you’re a non-profit, stumping up that kind of money is probably not going to be that easy.

That’s why we want to be honest about what you should be prepared to spend, if you want to do an annual report.

Be ready to spend at least $8000

We want to be clear and honest about what you should expect to put up, because you don’t want to commit, only to realise that you don’t have the money for it.

You might be wondering,

Why am I paying this amount for a designer?

Don’t underestimate just how tough a page like the one below is.

It takes at least an hour in Adobe InDesign for you to make a page like this below, that looks clean, uncluttered, and presentable.

Often in the pictures of teams of management staff, you would also need a professional photographer.

This is where the costs start to add up.

Professionally placed pictures like this will take effort and time.
Professionally placed pictures like this will take effort and time.

Wait, can’t we do it on Canva?

But wait.

Why should you bother to spend, if you can do it yourself on Canva? If you see the templates on Canva, you might think that an annual report shouldn’t be that hard to put together on Canva.

That’s not true.

An annual report helps people give more

If you think about an annual report, it’s a highlight of your year’s work.

It actually convinces people that you’re worth giving to.

Take for example the first ever annual report we did for a special needs school we will call SPED.

SPED is a school that served children aged 7 to 18. As they did the report, the teachers found themselves growing as a community. They celebrated how far they came as a teaching community, and how far much they had achieved.

This retrospective look at their school’s achievements over the year helped them encapsulate all they did, and convinced stakeholders to give more to them.

That’s why it is that important.

An annual report does three things

  1. Looks back at where you’ve come from
  2. Looks at what you’ve done over the year
  3. Looks forward at where you’re headed to
what an annual report contains
This is what an annual report can do for you.

Think through these questions

1. What’s the challenge you are solving?

Any charity solves a specific challenge. Granted, you may not be paid as much as you want for solving that particular problem, but you’re still uniquely placed to solve that problem.

Using SPED as an example, they were solving the pain-point of parents not knowing how to help their kids with intellectual disability.

But it’s also the challenge you’re looking to address with your annual report.

Sometimes, non profits might see stakeholders who struggle to understand what they do. Explaining that through the annual report helps potential clients, potential employees, and potential donors to better understand what they have recently done.

2. What’s the outcome you want to achieve with your annual report?

For non profits, there are 3 particularly important aspects of annual reports. Ideally, you would aim only for one or two, rather than trying to do all 3.

  1. Thought leadership
  2. Updating stakeholders on the work done throughout the year, hopefully driving more buy-in in in terms of resource commitment through donations, or volunteers

Doing all 3 risks you being unfocused, and your ideal audience not doing what you want them to do.

Structure first

Making an annual report is like making a book.

And in any book, you need a structure to guide the way you’re going to gather information, write, and later design it.

For example, an annual report like Care Corner’s below shows how they have laid it out.
For example, an annual report like Care Corner’s below shows how they have laid it out.

Take time to look through these structures. Often, it will feature some form of the following.

  1. Chairman’s Message
  2. The work you do
    1. Programmes you run
    2. People you helped
  3. Achievements for the year
  4. Examples of those achievements
  5. What’s planned for the coming year
  6. How people can support your work
    1. Volunteer
    2. Donate

After the structure, comes the writing.

Write first, design later

Whilst people are often enamoured with the design of the annual report, we think that the writing comes first.


Writers structure thoughts and ideas and make them accessible for readers. Underestimating the power of writers is foolish.

In Ed Catmull’s book ‘Creativity Inc’, he shared the process that helped him to create hits like the movie Toy Story, Up, and many others at Pixar.

One of his core convictions was that writers are vital to the filmmaking process.

As Ed Catmull, the founder of Pixar, the animation studio, wrote,

Not only is writing time-consuming but writers also bring structural thinking to the development process—input that most directors really need.

Get an internal (and external) project manager

Then comes the time when you have to put everything today.

This is where the project manager comes in. If you think about annual reports, the tough part is when you have to put together everything.

Finding the information needed is tough.

Coordinating the timelines of different people needed (such as a photographer, a graphic designer, a writer, and an editor), takes time too.

Ensuring that the project is delivered on time, on target, and on scope, is going to take some level of professionalism.

Your project manager is going to push, corral, and make sure that everything is delivered on schedule.

Don’t underestimate just how difficult this is.

Professional agencies can really do it

Let me take you through the best annual report we did.

In October 2023, SPED told us they wanted an annual report. In 6 weeks. Most annual reports take 3 months.

This is half the time.

To do this, I, the account manager had to push and corral multiple moving pieces in order to make sure that things were done on time.

  1. We had to make sure that kids had their pictures taken.
  2. We had to coordinate the gathering of information (such as the names of the teachers).
  3. We had to work with the printers to ensure that they had the time and capacity to print, given that the end of the year was often a very busy period for printers.

Of course, if you’re looking to hire, you could always hire us.



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