Sunday, September 28, 2008

annual reports: overloaded, underused

On the last day of the Communications Network in Philanthropy annual meeting last week, Mark Sedway of the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative shared results of a survey on annual reports as communications tools for foundations in a "group conversation" style plenary titled, "Is the annual report nearing extinction? Should it be?" Prompting the discussion: The ubiquity of annual reports as the primary communications tool for foundations--and the (perhaps not unrelated) low awareness of what foundations do. Here, some findings of the survey of foundation communicators:
    • 67% of foundations use print and PDF annual reports, but only 9% use "interactive" versions.
    • Harris Interactive data show news media are a more reliable source of information about foundations than annual reports for engaged Americans.
    • In fact, the annual report's the last thing read by people seeking foundation information--the odds are 4 in 1000 than an engaged American will read an annual report.
    • Little evaluation data exist to justify the ubiquity of annual reports: Only 3 of 20 foundations with $500 million or more in assets conducted reader surveys of annual reports.
As one communications vehicle, annual reports have too many objectives--so foundation communicators say they are too dense, limiting, or long. The costs of printing, paper and postage have risen while annual report readership has declined, and while the corporate sector has moved to print-on-demand, the philanthropic sector overwhelmingly favors print vehicles in this case, even as they see annual reports as a major budget drain with little return on investment.

The conversation included a variety of views from foundation communicators seeking to change that situation. One foundation communicator said, "We stopped doing an annual report in 2000 and the world didn't stop spinning," and another went to print-on-demand, only to find there was no demand. In at least one case, a foundation did survey a sample of its annual report readers and found they did want a print copy--an important reminder to follow your audience.

As for new-adapter versions of the old print annual report, the Heinz Endowments reports that its quarterly magazine includes one "annual report" issue that seems to solve the problems noted above (see its online "library" here). And in a brainstorming session, the German Marshall Fund--which convenes many policy conferences and experts--suggested a podcast version of an annual report to capitalize on the hours of recorded material captured during those sessions. (GMF also has a blog that captures ongoing conversations by and with its experts, another good way to avoid loading all your communications goals into one single, overworked vehicle.)
I'd go even further and suggest more interactive versions: A lookback at the previous year on your blog, including lookbacks from grant receipients, partner funders or other key constituents. Video and audio interviews with program officers to capture their best sense of progress made or barriers faced. A year-round blog that offers a series of lookbacks, with links to relevant posts from the previous year. Still not sure how to proceed? We offer new-media orientation and strategy sessions for organizations who want to know and understand their options before they transition away from a time-honored approach to new alternatives; contact us at for more information.

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