woman workingSo you’re the annual report writer this year.

For some people, it’s a pleasure to take time to write something long and substantial about their organisation or their team. For others, being required to write the company annual report is the equivalent of public speaking with no index cards and no powerpoint.

So this post is about helping the reluctant or under-experienced annual report writer. I’m going to assume you’ve got some knowledge of writing formal reports and you probably have a fair amount of writing skill, or they wouldn’t have given you the job. But feel free to ask questions on the Facebook comments below – no question is too small or too obvious.

Angry government department fines educational institution

Here’s a story from my past. It consists of eleven short words.

“The Department of Education called. They didn’t receive the financial statements.”


In annual report season, what followed would have to be the worst conversation I have had. Despite repeated assurances, guarantees, shared schedules, personal check-ins, warnings about pre-pressed files about to arrive, the girl at the printing firm not only managed to not send our accompanying financials with the annual report, but also forgot to actually schedule them and have them printed.

Yes, the girl sitting in the same place as the giant, smelly, exciting printing machines, the one whose job it is to book all the work in with the printers, who probably had to speak loudly so her clients could hear her over the machines, had completely missed an entire component of the order.

Our main reader, the government department to which we owed almost all of our livelihood, to which we had had to submit draft copies of our reports, whom we had reassured that our financial statements were complete and on time, had not received perhaps the most crucial part of the annual report – the accompanying booklet containing the financial statements.

They were angry, but luckily we could show them a long and thick paper trail of agreements and reminders, all with the complete participation of the printer. Luckily, they let us put our previously beautiful financial statements in via email, in their sad and lonely Excel formatting. Luckily, the above headline did not come to pass. And yes, we sacked the printer.

This, dear annual report writer, is only one of many things that can go wrong.

Large supporter organisation demands answers

The fact is, only a small percentage of readers read the whole of the Executive Summary, taking it in, with questioning, alert minds. Even fewer (perhaps 2%, research suggests) read the entire report. However, between them, the members of your community of readers – your members, donors, volunteers, sponsors and grant-makers – will read the whole thing.

Your support base expects there’s something in the annual report for everybody. You have to assume that for every section written in the report, there’s a person with detailed knowledge or understanding of that area ready to complain to you or expostulate on social media about how you put last year’s graph in the engineering section or how you transposed some numbers in the bit about market share.

The investors in nonprofits are grant-makers, sponsors and donors, who invest money or goods; and volunteers, who invest time and intellectual capital. Nonprofits are designed to not return financial gain to individuals, but the individuals want ‘gain’ nonetheless, and this gain needs to be reported. No gain, no reason for being.

The more the reader (or the organisation they represent) has invested in your organisation and its performance – and this includes not only financial but other measures of performance – the more upset they’re going to be if it’s reported incorrectly.

The annual report writer creates a media and community relations tool

The annual report has grown up a lot since we started editing them in the mid-1990’s. Once upon a time, they were bloated, badly-written documents using very expensive design and branding on very expensive stock. Apart from the physical style changing for many organisations from printed to PDFs – a change that took the regulators a long time to accept – the uses and focus of the annual report has changed as well.

notebook2Most organisations, particularly those in the nonprofit and charity sectors, use their annual reports to reach out to their supporters and members as well. It’s an annual report of not only their financial activities, but also an accounting of how they have behaved and the aspirations upon which they have delivered.

Did 300 volunteers serve thousands of meals? They’d better be mentioned, celebrated perhaps. Did you receive special mention from a political leader or a celebrity? In it goes. With picture, preferably.

When this ‘soft’ side to the annual report is written well, it can be used in parts later on in other areas of your organisation’s communications. Facebook updates, media releases, blog entries can all be based on things reported in the annual report, as long as you’ve not already covered the event or milestone extensively.


Things will go wrong

In a communications project as big as an annual report, when the main people working on it are internal team members with other responsibilities, things get missed.

It’s up to you to choose which things. How you plan and run the annual report writing as a project will have a big impact on whether the things that go wrong are minor, non-core things, such as someone’s name appearing in the wrong font, or major, this-can-never-happen things, such as that person’s name not appearing at all.

Here are some examples of what may go wrong for the novice annual report writer.

  • A whole chapter or section will be left out
  • The Chairman’s or CEO’s name will be spelled wrong
  • Someone will write ‘pubic’ instead of ‘public’
  • A designer will leave the brackets ( ) off a set of numbers, making the accounts out by millions of dollars
  • A printer will pretend they did not receive confirmation, a deposit, or reach agreement on the booking date for printing
  • The auditor will not sign off as fast as he or she said they would (this phase of the annual report is prone to bottlenecks as it happens right after the accounts are completed, which happens right at the end of the reporting cycle). You cannot put a pretend audit certification in there and just hope the real one, when it arrives, looks exactly the same
  • One of the members of the Board will object to some aspect of the annual report and will need to be persuaded by another member of the Board. Work will need to be suspended until this episode is completed
  • All the permission forms for the various photos, accumulated painstakingly throughout the year, will have disappeared

ways to reduce the risks

  1. Plan the project carefully, including building in lots of ‘fat’ into the timeline, and get your contractors or service providers involved early. For the annual report editor and the person who has to manage editorial staff creating annual reports, we have some handy checklists here.
  2. Be clear about roles and responsibilities from the start, not only within the communications team, but also from the contributors within your organisation
  3. If you report to a government agency or a larger institution, check in advance what their requirements are. Sometimes, their requirements add a degree of complexity that can be reduced by incorporating the requirements into your plans or the mock-up designs. See, for example, Queensland’s annual report requirements
  4. No matter what you do, always, always, always hire a proofreader – it must be someone who hasn’t been involved in the project, and who has experience proofreading financial documents
  5. If you’re going to write your annual report in-house, download a template from Microsoft or similar, or ask us to provide you with custom templates, as we’ve done for some our clients – custom templates are designed specifically for your organisation, and each one is a place for each of your contributors to answer specific questions about what happened in their area that year
  6. If you’re going to outsource the writing, design and production of your annual report, do some research first. A great place to start is the annual Australasian Reporting Awards. The more skilled and experienced the team, the more it will cost and the sooner you will need to book them in
  7. Last, but not least: Report Machine can help here! Don’t forget to ask us for quote for the writing, design and production.


Annual Report Writer by

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