October 23, 2014
Updated March 14, 2015

Taking Annual Reports Digital

Most nonprofits rely on annual reports to communicate insights from the previous year and articulate their intentions for the future, combining important data with human-interest stories.

Unfortunately, while other forms of storytelling have evolved over the last decade, many annual reports are still produced in print form, failing to take advantage of advances in technology and design that could make them more compelling.

Digital annual reports have many advantages over print versions: They can be cheaper to produce, and they allow charities to use video, interactive features, and dynamic data visualization. Using digital technology, charities can track how many people actually open the reports and what pages are most popular.

And with advances in content-management systems, like WordPress, employees with little or no web-development knowledge can dramatically change the look and feel of digital reports, so you don’t need a design or development staff to do it. Based on our research, my design studio has developed a tool to help nonprofits go digital.

To better understand why so many nonprofits continue to produce annual reports in print, I recently held conversations with a number of nonprofit professionals. Nearly all of them said they still sent out printed annual reports and believed they provided an important connection to donors. However, many admitted to having no means of measuring the success of those reports, while others relied solely on a few anecdotal stories.

When asked whether they had considered supplementing or replacing their printed annual reports with an interactive digital approach, most people said that they had, mentioning advantages like the ability to showcase video and interactive data visualizations and to use analytics to track visitors. When asked why they kept producing reports in the old format, most cited habit or the need for a high-quality contact with donors. Many were concerned that supporters might not look at digital reports.

But most organizations that don't have any way of measuring the success of print reports don’t actually know if people are reading them at all. Some recipients may quickly scan them, and others may ignore them entirely.

But even groups that know people value the print versions can still take advantage all that digital reports have to offer. For example, they can send  out a printed summary version of the report that is cheaper to mail, that focuses readers’ attention on essential information, and that directs them to a more robust and engaging digital annual report.

For other nonprofits, it may make sense to keep producing the full annual report in print. Beautifully designed printed materials can absolutely be an effective tool, especially for more old-fashioned donors.

But as those groups reach out to new supporters and other constituents, it might be wise to consider supplementing print reports with digital ones.

Check out these examples of nonprofit digital annual reports:


Editor's note: This column was updated on March 14, 2014 to add a link to Elefint Designs' digital annual report tool.

Matthew Scharpnick is the co-founder of Elefint Designs, a strategic design studio that works with good causes.