Every November or December at Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, where we work, our executive director Andy Hall adds an item to our to-do list: “Create, print and distribute annual report.” As a nonprofit newsroom, why publish an annual report? We want the communities we serve (yes, including donors) to be able to independently evaluate the impact of our work, and their support for it.
Transparency is central to everything we do at the Center. In that spirit, it’s important to us to share our story and the impact of our work. Since 2010, we’ve tracked the reach of our stories through our successful distribution network and we share details, including maps, on our website. We also publish examples of our impact.
And yet every year the mad dash of grant applications and reports, holiday functions and annual fundraising appeal work brings us to Dec. 31 with the annual report to-do item sitting sadly untouched.
This year, we took a different approach. In the somewhat-calmer month of May, inspired by ProPublica’s version, we set out to create our own Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism Report to Stakeholders. Working on a tight deadline with a board meeting approaching quickly, we had a draft ready to go within two weeks.
This was our first attempt at printing and distributing a summary of our recent stories, impact, reach and fundraising efforts. We posted the report on our website and printed hard copies for meetings with individual donors and foundations. We’re going to send copies to some donors along with our annual appeal letter. And the feedback we’ve received so far has been outstanding. Our staff and board members are proud to see documentation of what we’ve accomplished in the past year, our current donors are happy to see their dollars going to good use and potential supporters are impressed by the power of our small team to produce high-impact journalism that reaches a massive audience.
Creating a stakeholder report can seem daunting, but let us put this task into perspective for you: We were first-timers, not pros! And we were able to accomplish this with a small business staff of three.
Here is how to put together a stakeholder report for non-profit news:
Look to other organizations for inspiration
We were inspired by ProPublica’s stakeholder reports, but we also looked to reports from local organizations, like the Wisconsin Humanities Council in Madison, Wisc., for ideas. It was helpful to see what a variety of non-profit organizations are doing inside and outside of our industry to get an idea of what we wanted our stakeholder report to look like. This research helped us map out each section of the report.
Choose a time period that works for you
Our report to stakeholders came out in July; it’s not an end-of-year document. However, we hoped to keep its scope within some fixed parameters. We wanted to highlight all the great work we did in 2015, but since we started our document in May, it seemed silly to overlook the work we did in the first half of 2016.
Some organizations produce a report every few months or every year (or both!). How much and how often you publish can enter into your decision here, too. For our small staff, it was more manageable to make a report that spanned 18 months. Perhaps the Center will adjust that timeframe in the future, but for a first go, it worked for us.
Start by saying who you are
Your stakeholder report should introduce your organization to people who may not already be familiar with it. This realization emerged in later drafts for us. When editing the report, our staff realized we didn’t just want to offer this document to our current board and funders; we also hoped to use it when cultivating new partners and prospects in the near future. For this reason, it was essential to include a brief overview of the Center and its mission for the newbies.
Highlight recent successes in one page
Think of this as your quick executive report. It should summarize your Center’s most exciting accomplishments over the report period. For us, we wrote about our successes in the past 18 months, from winning awards and bringing on several new hires, to traveling across Wisconsin with a life-sized sculpture of a cow’s rear end (really!) and using stop-motion photography and GIFs to explain the frac-sand mining industry.
This one page is your best argument for why your non-profit news organization’s work matters — right now.
Use the information you have (and don’t stress about what you don’t)
Tracking of metrics and impact throughout the previous years was immensely helpful in putting the Center’s stakeholder report together in a pinch.
We devote a lot of resources to tracking the reach and impact of our work, so we already had tons of information from grant applications and reports that we poured time into during previous months. We borrowed from those documents. We also borrowed from past marketing materials, presentations, even emails. Of course, it still took time to pull it all together, but we were often amazed by how much we already knew about what happened after our stories were published.
If you don’t have that information at hand, buy your team lunch, sit down next to a whiteboard and brainstorm — you may be surprised at how much you learn!
To tell the whole story of the difference the Center makes in Wisconsin and why our work is so essential, we dedicated one page to stories of our impact and one to aggregate audience and pickup information and maps of the distribution of our content.
Photos were the sauce
We used photos, rather than lots of text, to summarize our investigations. Our page highlighting major investigations was simply a grid of photos with short descriptions and project titles. We included additional photography in the document to highlight recent reporting activities and events. With the report’s simple design, engaging photos were crucial in breaking up big blocks of text and making the appearance more appealing.
This is a report that will be printed out and shared. Don’t take shortcuts on visuals and layout.
As we wrote above, the response to our first Stakeholder Report has been beyond great. It’s a must-have for us, going forward.
But it will be a fluid document. There is more we’d like to include next time, and in fact, we’re currently replacing the page detailing our 2015 Investigative Reporting + Art project with one that covers “Where our former interns are now,” to show how our educational mission is contributing to the next generation of investigative journalists. We plan to change and adapt the document to fit our needs based on the time of year, shifting priorities and any new major projects.
Non-profit newsrooms are essential for the health of our communities, and we know the impact of our work. But the impact of non-profit news is like any good story — if no one reads it or hears about it, if you haven’t published a stakeholder report yet, your job is only halfway done.
Lauren Fuhrmann is associate director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Mara Jezior is the Center’s public engagement and marketing assistant.