Say What You Want To Say

It’s that time and my mailbox—both actual and electronic—is filling with annual reports.  I’m always of several minds about these, but that is for a different blog.  This one is about the way nonprofits often report their expenses and revenues in their annual reports and other materials that should be viewed as mainly marketing.

Percentages can be a wonderful way to express revenue and expenses, but only if there is a solid grounding about what they mean.  And thinking about the messaging you are sending.

I just received an annual report that proudly told me that fundraising revenue was 3% of the operating budget. Nowhere in the report was the amount of the operating budget mentioned.

Three percent of an organization whose operating budget is under $20 million is not a lot of money.  And yet, this development team was comprised of 5 people.  Let’s assume that the operating budget is—as so many operating budgets of nonprofits are–$2 Million.  Three percent of that is $60,000.  I’m not paying one person’s salary.  How is this justified?

Maybe it is because maybe this organization spends more than $2,000,000 a year.  But I don’t know.  And that is the point.

Make sure your messaging is getting the right message across.

Another annual report talked about the amount that annual giving brought in last year, and how much Giving Tuesday accounted for.  They talked about which constituencies made gifts to their Giving Tuesday campaign, but did not say whether this was part of annual giving or in addition to annual giving.  I am unsure if this is double dipping or if Giving Tuesday is kept completely separate.  More to my fundraising heart, was this an additional ask of existing donors or was Giving Tuesday targeted (as I think it should be) to entirely new prospects?

Many annual reports focus on programs.  That’s good and fine, but I rarely see a shout out to the donors who help make these programs viable.  Yes, there is typically an honor role of donors and a paragraph that says, “Thank to the generosity of our donors,” but I am talking about a lot more than that.

What percentage of this program was supported by charitable gifts?  How did the generosity of your donors enhance an existing program?  What impact did giving have on what your organization does?

Too often, annual reports are things that nonprofits do because—well, we’ve always done them.  Or the organization down the street does one or it is yet another place to put an envelope and hope that someone will reply with a gift.

Before you start on your next annual report—or any collateral material—ask yourself what the purpose of this piece is.  What do you want to accomplish?  Who is your audience or audiences?  What do you need to say to them, show them?  What is the best way to convey your message?

Clarity matters.  Do I want to tell a new audience about the importance of the work we do?  Or am I going to mainly be sending this to my existing donors?  Your messages should be different.  If you are going to use this for many different audiences, perhaps you should fashion specific cover letters that fit the audience you are targeting.  As my husband loves to remind me (a lesson that is well-learned), one size does not fit all.

Try this for every publication you consider:

Who is my audience (one line for each audience you target) What do I want THIS audience to learn? What call to action will I make for this audience

Then consider the best ways to get these messages across.  And though I am far more verbal than visual, I never underestimate the value of visuals, be it a picture, a chart, a graph.

Once you’ve pulled together your document, show it and the filled-out table above to someone you respect but who does not work at your organization.  As that person if what you’ve produced accomplishes what you hoped for.  If so, how?  If not, what is missing?

And then, if necessary, go back to the drawing board until you know that what you are sending out into the world is what you want the world—your world—to see.


Janet Levine Consulting works with nonprofits, moving them from mired to inspired.  Let Janet inspire you.  Go to to find out how.  While there, sign up for the newsletter and do contact Janet for a free, 30-minute consultation.


About janetlevineconsulting

For over 20 years, Janet Levine has worked for and with nonprofit and educational organizations, helping to grow their advancement programs. Her consulting company, Janet Levine Consulting, serves a wide range of organizations from small, all-volunteer agencies to major national organizations. She regularly teaches courses in non-profit management, fundraising and grant development, both face-to-face and online at In addition to her nonprofit work, Janet brings years of experience as a business and sales manager in the for-profit sector. She has an MBA from the Graziadio School of Business at Pepperdine University.
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