Taking the Foundation Annual Report Exercise to the Next Level

2011 Annual Report Cover Posted by: Peter Long, Ph.D.

Blue Shield of California Foundation's Experience

A strange thing happened this year when we kicked off planning for our new annual report – everyone got excited. In the past, annual report planning generated multiple meetings and produced groans around the office. Repackaging numbers and grant descriptions and flattening our programs, grantees, and impact into two dimensions was never a popular exercise. We can all agree that making audited financial statements have pizzazz is nearly impossible. Annual reports should do more than simply report numbers of grants, dollars provided, and laundry lists of accomplishments. Annual reports should share the data, stories, and vision of an organization.

At Blue Shield of California Foundation, we use our annual report to simultaneously reflect on our work and share our vision for the future. While we're doing these things, we also want our viewers to have a unique experience. This is why we've transitioned from a traditional print annual report to online interactive reports. Not only are we saving trees and embracing technology, we're also attempting to draw our audiences into an experience that will stay with them much longer. By using pictures, videos, interactive maps, and links, we want viewers to get a holistic and authentic look at what we do and understand why we do it.

Too often, foundations present metrics and data and use jargon to explain our work. For foundation staff, it can seem normal to talk about a 57 percent increase in organizational capacity and a 114 percent return on investment. These data are impressive when given in the context of grant investments, yet remain abstract to the vast majority of people. Data are only numbers until you provide meaning and context. As part of our transparency, foundations need to be authentic and accessible. Grant dollars and evaluation statistics are clearer when they are supported by the stories of people and communities.

Our goal for this year’s annual report was to turn the abstract into the authentic. We used photos to put a face to the hundreds of thousands of Californians who gained health care coverage over the year. We showed the health center, school, and community organization staff collaborating to prevent violence in their community. And we showed how a victim of domestic violence regained her confidence and her community. Working in the domestic violence and health care fields can create challenges to authenticity when telling the stories of those benefitting from our funding. Privacy of service recipients is both a legal and safety issue for our grantees (community health centers and domestic violence service providers). In our annual report we created characters that are composites of the clients served by these organizations every day. These composites were developed in consultation with our program staff who, through site visits, meetings, and long-standing relationships with grantees, have a deep understanding of the realities of our clients in a wide array of communities. Some may find irony in creating authenticity through made-up characters, but protecting individuals’ privacy and safety is our utmost concern.

Most importantly, our annual report looked at the experiences of an entire community and showed how our foundation is tackling a slice of their reality. Communities have needs that are bigger and different than what one foundation’s theory of change can accomplish. Foundations must be willing to be part of an eco-system that is dynamic and accept that grants will have successes and challenges that you may never foresee. We put forth a story of a community in 2015 - a date that is just around the corner. Inevitably the story will change between now and then, but we felt that was a risk worth taking to show our vision.

Transparency isn't a once a year exercise accomplished by an annual report. Stories and numbers of impact should be assessed impartially and shared regularly. Social media has helped our foundation give life to data for real-time impact. This allows us to make our annual report a narrative that is more memorable and focuses attention on the broader vision of our organization. Storytelling unlocks the meaning of data and keeps the focus on the end result - how foundations can improve lives and communities.

This post originally appeared on the Foundation Center’s Transparency Talk blog.

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