Dream With Us: The Annual Report That Could

RRCBy Josh Peskin

No one wants to read an annual report anymore.

That’s the realization that ultimately led the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College/Jewish Reconstructionist Communities to create this website and this three minute video.

Here’s how we got there: Stories might be compelling and images beautiful, yet even the most committed supporters barely skim traditional annual reports. Still, many nonprofit organizations continue to devote substantial resources and time to produce beautiful, glossy calling cards that function more as a safety blanket than they do as communications vehicles looking to achieve measurable results. It’s a bit of a mystery why we let this often very expensive vehicle escape scrutiny when we wouldn’t do the same for most other projects.

Traditional annual reports cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, and very rarely are organizations able to prompt more than a few hundred people to read them.

At the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College/Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, we found that fewer than 200 people read our annual report in 2014 – and I know that we were not alone.

We asked: How might we reallocate our limited time and funds to fulfill the intent and requirements of an annual report while radically raising our goals around engagement with it? In other words, if nobody wants to read an annual report anymore, how do we make a new version that actually succeeds in engaging and inspiring people?

A number of organizations have made the shift to paperless annual reports, including us. In fact, when you move to an e-annual report, that is when you learn exactly how few people are actually reading the document. Previously, you would only know how many you printed and how many remain in boxes when the next year’s report came out. The online analytics show in brutally stark terms how many people open it, how many pages they click on and how long they take looking through it.

In 2015, we had the thought to build an interactive website around a whiteboard animation video, which served as the centerpiece and introduction to our organization and movement. The process of working with an animator forced us to think in new ways about how to join imagery and language to communicate effectively about the college and the movement itself, specifically what we wanted people to know, believe, do and feel as a result of being impacted by our annual report. We produced a six-minute video that we believe successfully captured the essence of our movement through attempting to answer the question: Who are Reconstructionists? In doing so, we highlighted our diversity, our commitment to inclusion and our dynamic approach to Jewish living. We embedded the video on our website, including links to our financial statistics, and information about our students and congregations.

Video Attracts Viewers

The results surpassed all our hopes.

Over the past year, the video has been viewed nearly 9,000 times. It received exciting positive coverage in the Forward, which called it the “quirkiest annual report in the mundane history of Jewish annual reports.” We also received four marketing and public-relations awards, successfully competing against advertising agencies and Fortune 500 companies. The video cost about as much money to produce as our traditional annual reports, and took just about the same amount of time to plan and complete.

I can say from direct experience that the video has proven a valuable fundraising tool. I show it on my iPhone when sitting with supporters and prospective supporters, and it gets people excited to talk about the college and movement.

This year, we focused on our movement’s dreams for the Jewish future. We examined what worked in the first report and what could be tweaked. For example, last year we put a lot of time into creating content for the website portion of the report. And fewer than 200 people engaged with this content, as opposed to the thousands who watched the video. Lesson learned: Spend more time on the video and less time on the website. We also realized that, at more than six minutes, the running time of the 2015 video was too long. This year’s version, which was just recently unveiled, comes in at just a bit more than three minutes.

The results: After one month, we are already at 15,000 views of this year’s video as compared to 9,000 for the entire year last year. While we have a variety of new metrics and are tracking a number of meaningful actions – such as people making gifts or signing up to stay in touch – we are, nonetheless, quite heartened at these results. We look forward to a year of using this piece to drive change and engage Reconstructionist communities and beyond.

One of the great challenges of Jewish life today centers on communication and our collective ability to do it better. We need to draw people in to an optimistic, warm and essential Jewish world that will help them make meaning, build relationships and community, and facilitate growth and change in the world. We try to succeed with this every day and hope that these two years of annual reports take a step away from the practice of rote communications and toward effectively drawing people into the warmth of our community and practice.

We think this year’s report is stronger than ever, but we’ll leave it to you to judge.

Josh Peskin, Ph.D., is Vice President for Strategic Advancement at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.