Death to the Annual Report Mass Mailing

Print Share on LinkedIn More


non profit annual report

Effective nonprofits tell their story. It’s not enough to just do good work; we rely on public support and so we must enlist the public as allies. Getting that word out was a lot harder in the 20th century, and often a lot more expensive. Four-color glossy printing gets cheaper after 1,000 copies, but for the small nonprofit, that’s already too many copies and too much money.

Many nonprofits still find it necessary to have the print version of their annual report for a select few purposes, but let’s not assume that everyone wants that expensive mailer because they sent you $25 two years ago at the behest of a friend. There is a way to scale your response, keep your costs down, and still make that impact—maybe even a better one than blanketing the world with paper that immediately hits the recycling bin.

  • Yes, you still want to produce a visually compelling, easy-to-access story about you, your mission, your outputs for the year and your progress toward outcomes. Yes, pictures are still really good for that, as are pretty charts. Maybe even the occasional infographic (but use sparingly). Instead of going right to print, use your donated software from (your publishing software is coming from TechSoup, yes?) and create your compelling story. Publish it as a PDF document for download on your website, and maybe add a service like Scribd to make a nice page-turning experience for those who still like that feel for an annual report.
  • E-mail the link to your donors, friends, potential donors, stakeholders…just about anyone you have permission to e-mail. Let them know you are using their money carefully and making your annual report available online to keep costs low and communication high. Let people reply to the e-mail to request a paper copy if they really want one. Then you can send just a few that will actually get read, and not hundreds or thousands that will never get opened. Bonus for environmental groups: “reduce” comes before “recycle.” Soy ink is great and all, but less is definitely more in the case of printing.
  • Not all of your stakeholders using e-mail? Or at least not giving you an e-mail address yet? Send a postcard. It’s much cheaper and much more environmentally friendly than sending them the full annual report. On the postcard, tell them your report is available and give them a really simple address to get it ( is way better than Also, give them an e-mail address and a phone number so that they can contact you for a paper version if they want one. Some will still want paper, but others may just pop by your website and maybe they will even give you an e-mail address, which could translate to instant cheaper communication in the future.
  • Don’t print more than you need for occasional use when you can always print on-demand. Yes, it would be cheaper per unit to print 1,000 all at once, but it’s still way less expensive in total to print on-demand for just several dozen.
  • Want to really impress people? Publish an ePub version and let them use their tablet or e-reader to flip through your virtual pages. You may even get it shown off to others, because techie people with e-readers love to show off all the cool content they can get for free. And your software will make an ePub for you with little extra effort.

And when you forgo the hard copy, don’t forget to tell people that this decision isn’t just about cost savings. This is part of a well-rounded communications strategy, one which respects how people really want to get communication from you, not just how you are used to sending it out. Help them opt-in to relevant communications from you all year ‘round so that they hear about what they care about. Your stakeholders need to be able to dial up (or down) the volume of communication on subjects they care about rather than just getting one check-in at the end of your fiscal year. Readers who feel like you are giving them choices and respecting their habits are on the road to becoming advocates.

Steve Boland lives at the intersection of community, policy and technology. Steve holds a Master of Nonprofit Management from Hamline University, and is a regular contributor to Nonprofit Quarterly. He can be reached at or

  • Sarah Hoban

    Great advice all around!

    One additional suggestion: This year, in addition to a limited run of our regular annual report, we used a postcard-sized trifold that included our annual budget figures, our service stats, a quick rundown of our services and our contact info (including a link to the “big” annual report on our website). It folds up into a business-card-sized piece and so we can use it as a handout all year long.

  • Elaine Fogel

    Although I understand your rationale, I don’t fully agree, Steve. I’ve produced annual reports for several years, both in print and digitally. Posting the digital version to an organization’s Web site demonstrates its transparency and accountability to stakeholders.

    However, printed annual reports also make effective marketing pieces. Today, they can be developed very creatively, emphasizing stories with good images. The financial and operating reporting is important, too, but needn’t occupy as many pages as they have previously.

    Print copies can be mailed to major gifts donors, funders, sponsors, and government officials. There’s a greater chance people will glance at them this way than sending them a link.

    Printed annual reports be used when meeting with corporate and cause marketing partners, planned giving prospects, and volunteer leaders, as well as complementing media kits.

  • Lindsay Walker

    Great advice, Steve. An increasingly popular trend I have seen in the sector is to accompany an annual report with a video, perhaps with the Executive Director or Board Chair providing pertinent information in an interview setting. It can be an easier way for constituents to digest important data rather than reading through an entire PDF.

  • Nick Blake

    I believe segmentation is the key. Surely you want the corporate and government donors to receive the glossy copy. That is not a waste but your ROI. Their decision makers just won’t consider reading anything of lesser quality, full stop.

    With the rest we typically send a PDF with email. If the PDF is not personalized we are talking some 2-3 cents per message. Surely we could send just a link to the PDF online, but for many donors that won’t feel personal enough. You want each of your donors to feel how their PERSONAL effort made all the difference. If they have to navigate to the common document, that feeling of being special will evaporate fast. More over, as the donor navigates away from your message you risk them not returning back to read your call for action.

    On the other hand, tracking link to the document helps you understand what engages each of your donors. CAN I ASK EVERYONE TO SHARE THEIR OPEN RATE OF THE ANNUAL REPORT? From our experience with nonprofits it lags far behind more attention-catching links.

    Emails (and other delivery channels including post) does not guarantee 100% delivery and the donor’s record may lack some types of them. Our systems automatically fall back at more and more expensive channels. Obviously we can’t send the report by SMS, and by Fax it won’t look great, but sending a link and a big THANK YOU is pretty much sufficient. Obviously the last and the most expensive channel is still The Post. Steve’s suggestion to send a postcard is the great way to reach those donors.

    Following this strategy you know exactly how many hard copies to print and mail to the corporate donors (we also encourage memorabilia and other tokens). That is important because there are significant volume discounts not only for print and tokens, but also delivery. With automatic fall-back to more expensive delivery channel you are also guaranteed the cheapest way possible. Opting out of the delivery completely is not an option simply because it is not only report you are sending. You are sending a marketing message and the report is substantiation of your claims!

    Nick Blake
    Managing Director
    Commerce Router, Sydney Australia.
    Online marketing services provider.
    We offer Marketing campaigns, Statements, Online Events registration, Online Surveys, Incentives programs, Websites development, SEO and Social Media.