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Is Your Annual Report Telling the Right Story?

Posted by on June 22nd, 2015
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Communications, Storytelling   

Recently one of our clients, a program officer at a private foundation, complained to me that so many of the stories she reads in annual reports sound the same. “Are stories really that important?” she asked.

My first instinct was to argue with her. After all, I’ve spent most of my career trying to convince nonprofits that storytelling is essential. And it is. In a head to head test, donors presented with the story of a single individual were more likely to give than when presented with data proving the efficacy of an organization.

Stories work.

And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized she does have a point. Many nonprofits DO tell the same kinds of stories in their annual report. The story goes something like this: Joe had a problem. He couldn’t solve it. So we solved it for him. The end.

The problem isn’t storytelling. The problem is that nonprofits tell the WRONG stories in their annual reports.

If you want your story to be successful, it has to relate back to how you want to position your brand, or reputation. Want to be seen as the most innovative organization in your field? Then tell stories of innovation. Want to be known for nurturing great leaders? The story you tell has to reinforce that point.

Most organizations tell the same story of helping. Instead, your stories – in annual reports and beyond – should very carefully work to reinforce the bigger idea behind your work. What impression do you want people to have of your organization as a whole? Every story should work to create that impression.

You can see how we helped our client, San Francisco AIDS Foundation, reinforce one of the big ideas behind their brand: acceptance.

San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s brand position relies on the idea of acceptance because reducing stigma improves the health of our community. The stories that we created for the annual report we wrote and designed for them reinforce that idea by telling how real people found acceptance and strength through San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which then led to better health. See how the story reinforces that?

They could have easily told stories about people who they’d helped this year, but they understood that they had to stand out as the organization that is leading in the fight against HIV by addressing stigma. Thus, their stories needed to focus on that idea and that idea alone.

Here are three questions to answer to make sure your stories are on target in your next annual report:

  1. Do you know what truly makes your organization unique?
    Your story must reinforce what makes you special. A generic story of an individual being helped isn’t as interesting as a story that shows why your organization (and only your organization) could address a specific problem.
  2. Are you focusing on a single individual?
    An organization isn’t a good protagonist. Tell the story of someone in your community.
  3. Does your story have a point?
    There’s a reason you are sharing a specific story: it helps you illustrate something special about what you do. Make sure to drive home why you are sharing a particular story.

Now’s the time to start writing your next annual report. How will the stories you tell reinforce your brand position?

Want some help? Give us a call. Annual reports are one of our specialties. See other recent Mission Minded annual reports here to get inspired to tell your stories.




Zach Hochstadt is a Mission Minded Founding Partner and runs Mission Minded’s Denver office, leading the company’s creative teams in the areas of message development, writing, graphic design, and web design and development.

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