With the end of the year quickly approaching, nonprofit and CSR teams are turning their attention to impact reporting. And while it’s not quite ‘report season’ yet, savvy teams will begin considering what to report – and more importantly, what story to tell. 

To Impact Report, or Not to Impact Report

For nonprofits and companies alike, annual impact reports offer a chance to clearly articulate the impact you made throughout the year, weaving a compelling story that resonates with stakeholders. Organizations publish impact reports for a variety of reasons, but some of the major ones include:

  • Transparency and Accountability – Reports offer stakeholders a transparent look at how funds and resources have been used. For nonprofits in particular, these reports can be a valuable overview for funders and donors. 
  • Legal Compliance – Larger companies, especially those that are publicly traded, need to complete impact reports that demonstrate sustainability and governance efforts. However, this doesn’t mean that they have to be dry, data-focused reports. Many include engaging representations of what the company has socially accomplished that year. 
  • Marketing & Storytelling – Strong impact reports include story-driven pieces that offer plenty of opportunity for stakeholder engagement. For nonprofits and companies alike, reports can elevate brand image and position organizations as human-centered, innovative thought leaders who are engaged in meaningful community work. 

The Essentials

At Next Stage, we look at a lot of impact reports. While they are all different, the best ones have a few things in common.

Here are some things that we think make impact reports great – along with a handful of our favorite reports from the last year as prime examples:

Story Matters – and So Does Style

Whether your impact report targets annual donors or financial disclosures, the way your report shows up matters! When The University of Maryland did studies on how people read on social media, in school and in business, they found we spend an average of 26 seconds on things we choose to read – which means we have limited time to get our point across. Make that time more effective by focusing on the compelling, human-centered stories that bring your data to life. 

Tangible stories paired with compelling images bring specificity to a report and help your audience quickly ‘get’ the impact you’re making. The data is critical – but it’s the stories and themes that bring these reports to life. 

Check Out: Girls Who Code built their impact report from several years ago directly onto their website, offering an easily accessible, visually appealing look at their year. They intentionally built on the previous year’s theme of ‘sisterhood,’ clearly defining a narrative that resonates broadly. It takes a subject that could be perceived as less exciting (coding!) by pairing it with a highly relatable and human theme that centers the girls they serve. 

Impact > Metrics

Data that demonstrates impact continues to be a big question for nonprofits and CSR professionals alike. When measuring impact, it is often easiest to default to ‘output’ metrics instead of impact – and for good reason. Long-term, effective impact is notoriously difficult to track. When considering the long-term impact of funding or programs, ask yourself ‘Why does it matter?’ – then ask it again and again. This often helps move from an ‘output’ position to an ‘outcome.’ Diving even deeper can result in getting to longer-term outcomes. 

For example, a nonprofit that provides scholarships may say, ‘We raised $100,000 to send first-generation students to college.’ The money raised is an output of their activity. Their second draft may say, “Ten students were able to attend their first year of college’ – this is an outcome metric and much stronger than the first. A final draft based on long-term impact might read, “Five scholarship students graduated this year and obtained their first professional job.” All of these metrics are important but focusing on impact makes for a much more effective story. 

Check out: We love the 2023 impact report from Consumer Reports. In addition to the beautiful design (that header!) it offers clear data on their mission to test and investigate products to make them safer for consumers. The data comes alive when they link the number of surveys and engagement with stories about the annual wins that will have a long-term impact on consumers – such as new requirements that make dressers safer and less likely to tip over or exposing the dangers of heavy metals in chocolate. 

Know Your Audiences

When it comes to marketing, impact reports can be a valuable asset for companies and nonprofits. Similar to any other marketing asset, it is critical to define target audiences and to develop content that will resonate. One frequently overlooked audience is your own internal team. 

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, 71 percent of employees say societal impact is a strong expectation or deal breaker when considering a job. In a competitive recruiting and retention market, current and prospective employees may be the audience most carefully reading your report! And while ‘impact’ is the most important thing to report, consider how your impact relates to your audiences and the elements they will most want to know. For example, a buyer may want to know the ethics of your supply chain, while a prospective employee might want to better understand what DEI looks like at your organization, or how the company engages with nonprofits. 

Check Out: Glen Raven built their 2023 impact report around a clear set of sustainability, safety and social metrics but the report comes alive when they tell the stories of how Glen Raven employees enabled this work. (Full disclosure: Next Stage helped produce this report last year). We love the story on page nine that describes how one employee is elevating women in leadership and advocating for mentorship across the company. Whether discussing manufacturing plant safety or their nonprofit partnerships, they center storytelling, offering a compelling accessible look at the company’s impact. 

The Takeaway

Anyone can publish an infographic with metrics from their year, but savvy teams focus on the why behind their data – and translate that into approachable, human-centered content.