The Online Annual Report: How to Get Started

As we reach the summer solstice, our thoughts turn to annual reports. Your annual report tells the story of your impact over the past year. It shows donors how they can be part of something special, and it’s critical to showcase your work in the best possible light.

Making It Happen

Your annual report is a major endeavor. It requires coordination with multiple departments and stakeholders, and extensive research and writing. And it’s one of the most important ways for you to tell your organization’s story to those who want to understand your impact and credibility. A great annual report can help engage supporters and donors — and future donors! — more effectively than almost any other written work.

The process of creating a cohesive print-to-digital experience should be guided by your organization’s brand strategy, and every organization needs different kinds of support to produce an effective annual report. 

Forum One works with a multitude of organizations on building effective messages and platforms, and we’d like to share some of the fundamentals that we use in creating compelling print and digital annual reports. We analyze the strength of your brand, the internal resources at your disposal, and your peer ecosystem to develop a customized plan for publishing an annual report that sets you up to build on your success in the coming year. We then execute your plan, or support you to get it launched yourself.

Bridging the Print-to-Digital Divide

As you start planning to produce your 2016 annual report, take a look at how all of the pieces will fit together online — from project planning, communication strategy, writing, and editing to design, development, and production. Having a strong brand strategy is paramount for success in this area. When we first work with organizations to develop their annual report strategy, we sometimes see a very different online representation of the organization that is mismatched with the print collateral. 
We’ve seen examples of organizations that have published a polished, sleek, and professional annual report in print, but then put the same report into a blog post on a website that doesn’t work well on phones. When your most important donors are searching for that report on your website when they’re on their way to meet with you, it makes an impression that’s hard to overcome, no matter how important your work is. A great example of a print-to-digital design is Conservation International’s 2016 annual report (full disclosure: Forum One did not design this report).

Conservation International


Key questions as you get started:

  • What kind of voice and tone do you want to use? 
  • Who is responsible for maintaining brand standards within your team?
  • How will you coordinate the content writing across your team?
  • How will your annual report integrate with your visual style?
  • How will you publicly launch your digital report?

Demonstrating Impact

In your annual report, it’s critical to demonstrate impact using measurable performance data that paints a clear picture of the organization’s accomplishments over the past year. Data visualizations and infographics can be a major part of helping your report come to life. For example, USDA’s Farm to School Census showcases their data using eye-catching infographics and video, while AAMC makes sure all information is grouped from the very first page to make sure funders can get directly to the sections they are most interested in.



Throughout the year, you’ll want to make sure you’re gathering the data that you will use to effectively tell the story of your impact. If you put in place a strategic approach to key performance indicators (KPIs), parts of the annual report will practically write themselves, because you’ll have the data at your fingertips.

Key considerations for using performance data:

  • What is your organization trying to achieve through its mission?
  • What initiatives is your organization taking on to support this mission?
  • What are the best metrics to measure your impact in 2016? Our KPIs guide describes metrics related to outputs, users, engagement, and impact. 
  • What tools or resources are required to collect the data and what are the costs, in dollars and staff time, for using them?

Where to Publish

Publishing digital annual reports has become a standard over the past few years, and best practices now exist to guide organizations on what model works best for their teams.  Many organizations, such as Partners In Health, use existing platforms like Medium to complement their print report; others, such as FHI 360, develop a microsite or a page on their existing site.
For many organizations, a long-form report can be the perfect format for an annual report. It works with your basic visual brand, but it accommodates big, beautiful visuals and graphics, and allows you to present information outside the confines of your standard site layout. We worked with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to create a long-form report builder that they’ve used for numerous reports. CSIS now publishes their annual reports using the customized long-form tool we developed for them.



Key considerations for choosing your digital platform:

  • How much traffic does your website get, and how prominent is it in search results? If your SEO and traffic are strong, your annual report should probably be a part of your main site.
  • Do you have a strong email list and an effective email campaign strategy that has shown results in creating engagement with your website? If not, you might want to use a platform with its own built-in audience, like Medium.
  • Does your website have the capability to host the report while still looking great on all devices? Can you embed interactive infographics and other visual elements on your site? If your website is not responsive, you should build a microsite or use a separate platform (and start to plan for a website refresh, because your users will expect a responsive site!).

No matter the approach or platform, above all, remember that an effective annual report brings together the stories and data that ultimately help your donors and supporters see how you are making a difference. Now it’s up to you to get started.

Need a Partner for Your Annual Report?

We'd love to chat. Get in touch today so that we can schedule a call to discuss a plan that will take your next annual report to the next level.