Make Your Annual Report Part of Your Madoff Plan

This is the second in a series by Alan Kravitz on basic elements of a Madoff Communications Plan. In his first post, Alan talked about establishing a “Madoff Q&A” Here, he writes about taking that most enduring communications staple – the annual report – and making it more appealing to donors and prospects.

They say there are two certainties in life: death and taxes. Those of us in the non-profit world can add one more – the annual report. Contrary to popular belief, annual reports are not legally required for non-profits, as they are for publicly traded companies. Still, most non-profit leaders rightfully recognize the value in having one. In an annual report, you can show accomplishments, cultivate partnerships and recognize your most generous donors.

I’ve written many annual reports and I know that non-profits are getting more creative with their copy – except when it comes to the allocations pages. Many of them are still written with lawyers and CFOs in mind – not with donors in mind. Too often, these pages look like nothing more than spreadsheets, and they’re filled with platitudes that sound nice (“We have the infrastructure in place to repair the world!”) but don’t really say anything concrete. In the past, this has been an acceptable practice – along with the belief that people “don’t really read this stuff anyway.”

In the wake of the Madoff scandal, that attitude must change. Even if donors and prospects haven’t paid attention to your allocations pages in the past, they will most certainly do so now. They will want to know more than where their money goes; they will want to know exactly how you use it. That’s why I recommend making your annual report a part of your Madoff Communications Plan. Here are some simple steps you can take for an effective, donor-friendly annual report.

Step 1: Graphics, graphics, graphics. And did I mention graphics? Sure, your allocations may consist of lists, but there’s no excuse for not making them visually appealing. And even with graphics, avoid the ordinary, like pie charts and globes. One of my clients goes the pie chart motif one better and uses photos of real pies to explain financial breakdowns. They make me hungry – but they also make me take notice.

Step 2: Replace percentages with dollar examples. Not everyone relates to percentages, but everyone – especially these days – relates to dollars. So if you have sentences like: “The cost of fulfilling all our mission was 11.7 percent our total raised,” change it to, “About 12 cents of each dollar raised went to operating costs necessary to fulfill our mission.” Resist the adage that it’s a “negative” to be up front about this. In these days of “transparency” (which itself is just a fancy word for being as clear as possible) you need to be up front about all aspects of your organization. And speaking of up front:

Step 3: Use your annual report to showcase your own cost cutting. Sure, your annual report will focus on how your organization helps people in tough times. But why not go further and devote some copy to what you’ve done internally to cut costs? In these times when prudence is “in” and extravagance “out,” many organizations are being remarkably candid about this. One of my clients, for example, now lets everyone know that until the economy improves, bagels will no longer be served at meetings. If you’ve found creative ways to cut back – without cutting services or staff – then use your annual report to showcase that. Again, you’re not being “negative” here; you’re actually showing your donors and prospects that you can be trusted to responsibly handle their money in tough times.

The most effective annual reports go beyond celebrating accomplishments – they also show what your organization does and where it’s going. In these uncertain times, people will give their philanthropy only to organizations they completely trust. It’s more important than ever to remember that when planning and writing your annual report.

Alan Kravitz has been writing for, and listening to, the Jewish community for more than 15 years – in good times and not-so-good times. His company, The Infinite Inkwell specializes in writing web and print copy for Jewish organizations throughout the United States.