Katya Andersen wrote a brief post about a reader-submitted annual plan from the Austin Children’s Shelter in Texas last week, as well as a full copy of said plan. The entire plan is available linked above and it’s more than worth a read. Like Katya, I’m of the opinion that this report does a lot of things right- it’s beautifully designed, succinctly written and has a consistent, heartfelt narrative. Also like Katya, I thought I’d distill my favorite components of this report into a handy list, below:
1.) The Title: ‘A Year of Extraordinary Normalcy, made possible by you’
The report’s title is playful, powerful and a little out of the ordinary. The idea that normalcy is the goal for the folks that the organization serves is clearly conveyed in a way that is striking, and light-hearted but not jokey. It’s a perfect encapsulation of why the organization is essential- they’re not providing extras, they’re bringing aid to children who just want to get to normal. It’s a reminder of what they do, before you even read the first page, and they go the extra mile: not only is it an excellent summary of why their services are vital, it puts the focus back on the donor. There are other title call-outs within the document, including ‘The Battle of Sandbox Alpha, made possible by you,’ as well as some other gems. All the title text serves to emphasize the role of the donor (supporting essential work) and the organization (providing essential services), underlined by the photographs illustrative of both concepts. The ‘Sandbox Alpha’ title is paired with a super-saturated, close up shot of a child’s action figure, half-buried in a sandbox, which brings me to . . .
2.) The Visual Design
The report relies on a major assist from the gorgeous graphic design. The design is poppy and upbeat, without being frivolous, with strong primary colors and drastic lines. The pictures chosen to accompany each page are unusual in that they all flout the donor-engagement rule we’ve all heard a thousand times: people respond to human faces. This report has not a onestraight-on shot of a smiling child or adult; in fact, almost all the faces in the report are either completely out of frame, out of focus, or partially obscured. The focus, instead, is on bodies in motion and objects that are evocative of relationships, rather than a direct depiction of them. There’s a close up of a teenager jumping to catch a basketball, two pairs of shoes (one big, one small) set side-by-side and warmly lit, children’s hands playing with toys or covered in green play-doh, two kids standing precariously on one skateboard- all the images here have obviously been carefully chosen and serve to emphasize the theme of the report: these are children behavingnormally, happily and healthfully and they’re doing so because of your support. It took me several passes through the report before I realized what was delighting me so much: it’s very refreshing to see familiar ground (annual reports) tread in such an innovative way (not a one ‘this is my story’ testimonial accompanied by that ever-present smiling-face shot!) and I found myself reading every word carefully, instead of skimming. It’s quite the bold move to completely forgo those smiling-at-the-camera shots, but they more than make a case for doing so, by so perfectly illustrating their work without them. I’d not been previously familiar with the organization, but the images and design of the annual report helped give me a real sense of how they see their mission and concrete examples of what they do. And again, what could be more normal and joyous, than kids in motion and at play?
3.) The Narrative Structure
The narrative structure is fairly standard- though the testimonials included aren’t written 1st-person, which I like- but is creative enough to be a strong counterpart to the impeccable overall design. The examples of why young people end up in the care of ACS, the different types of care they receive, and the outcomes of each example case provide a comprehensive view of what a child’s experience of the organization can be like. I really loved that the report emphasizes the different types of successful outcomes: there’s an example of when relief care can provide a necessary and vital respite for a physically unwell parent, a story of how a young person dependent on drugs first is asked to leave the shelter then comes back into the fold with happier results, a beautifully, concisely written description of how an initially furious teen mom evolves and deepens her relationship with her young daughter, using ACS’s services. All the stories are touching and they are all very different- it’s a great way for the organization to show off the depth and breadth of what they do and the narrative pieces really help break up the stats.
One of the really innovative ways this report gets it’s message across is by offering the reader opportunities to pass it along- on nearly every page of the report, there are adorable premade cards along the margins, that give the recipient the opportunity to pass along various pieces of information about ACS to their friends and contacts. I think this is an incredibly smart move- it’s like making a paper mailing viral. Finding ways to leverage your donor base can be a complicated nut to crack, but I think they’ve done so quite effectively here: they don’t have to ask their donors for contacts and it doesn’t seem pushy at all- they’re spreading the excitement about their organization and work through this report and have correctly, I think, assumed that their readers will be inspired to share the news. They made sure that the sharing will be all-the-more effective, by putting promotional materials right in the hands of their donors.
5.) The Opportunities for Engagement
This is really the second part of #4- the communicability factor is greatly increased by the decision to include multiple different suggested types of engagement: there are promotional cards for upcoming events, for general info on the organization, promoting the organization’s social media presence and corporate sponsorships and many others. The cards also serve as a reminder to readers of the full range of options for supporting ACS- already a donor? Why not come to one of our events and follow us on Twitter? It’s a great way to keep donors engaged, enthused and planning the next way they’re going to support your organization.
Well, those are the top five reasons that I loved this report, but I have a few other notes and questions below:
How much did this cost?
It’s very exciting to see such a polished and creative report, but I would be quite curious to know how much they spent on production, whether it was done primarily in-house or mostly by a design/copy-writing firm. ACS is a mid-to-large-size organization (about $5.5M yearly through individual gifts, government funding, private foundations and other revenue sources), with substantial and varied funding sources and while they may be better funded than many organizations, there are many elements in this report that could be emulated on more of a shoe-string budget. If I was looking at producing an annual report on a tighter budget, I’d do my best to isolate the elements here that would best work for my particular organization (narrative structure, ‘advocacy tools’ cards, photo formats etc.), then reformat/reshape them into a manageably-sized project for in-house production.
Why the donor list is important
Two full pages of an annual report is quite a bit to dedicate to a text-only donor list, but in my opinion, it’s absolutely in the right place. I applaud ACS for including their full list of donors for the year in this report- the report emphasizes that the organization’s work is made possible by generous donor support (and indeed, individual/private gifts account for nearly $2M of the organization’s revenue, 34.4%- the largest slice of the revenue pie) and I think it’s great that they put the names of their supporters front and center. It adds a lot to the report, to see that list of names and they also recognize their staff and board of directors as well.
Where does online fundraising fit in?
Being crazily biased, I have to say that I would have included many more emphasized points directing the reader to their online fundraising pages (which are made using Convio and on which, for the record, I think there is lots of room for improvement) and directed more focus to the online giving platform. But, perhaps it’s not a focus for ACS (it seems like they do a lot of event/in-person fundraising and there are certainly a lot of different options for giving on their site) and they do have some cards that direct folks to the giving page. If it were me, I would be working to make as much of the giving process as possible nice and automated and leaning heavily on the online functionality, but again, no one ever said I’m not biased.
In summary, a big bravo! to Austin Children’s Shelter and their fabulous annual report- what a pleasure to read such a thoughtful, spirited and beautifully produced document that paints such a vivid picture of their organizational mission and work.