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Gates and Atlantic Show Clear Evolution of Annual Reports


Guest Post: Susan Herr

During the past decade, a protracted debate raged as to whether foundations should produce printed annual reports in this digital age. (For the low down on the debate, check out this microsite, produced by the Communications Network and Philanthropy Awareness Initiative in 2010.)

Two new digital annual reports from two foundations – The Atlantic Philanthropies and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – suggest that a lot of arguments fueling the conversation back then have been rendered moot as foundations have found ways to breathe new life into their annual reports.

The Gates report, which is billed as an interactive experience, is a notable example for several reasons:

  1. A real live person speaks to us in a real live voice.  The energy behind this communication is Bill and Melinda Gate’s passion. As a field, philanthropy is still largely speaking in “institutional voice.” It’s dull. Other foundations may not have a Gates (or two), but the energy that makes for engaging communications can only be found in the voices of real live human beings.
  2. Gates uses the annual letter to advance a provocative idea: the case for using clear goals and measurement to improve the health and welfare of more of the world’s people. This report isn’t just a record of grants made and the stories behind those grants, it’s a persuasive argument for a position that has been hotly debated in the sector over the past decade. (For a taste of who stands where on the issue, check out the “impact” landing page of The Ford Foundation under the headline “What We’re Following”.) This theme of measurement is central to the Gates Foundation’s positioning and brand and is advanced consistently throughout the site. One can agree or disagree with the central point, but the Foundation’s position is crystal clear, and it’s engaging.
  3. The letter uses a variety of media formats to hook us.  It  includes easily digestible segments, lots of images, infographics and options for sharing. A video version that blends Bill’s talking head with key words and images is central. If I want an even tighter version, the site sends me to “10 Key Take-Aways from Bill Gates’ Annual Letter” on Mashable, making it yet more shareable. So smart.

AtlanticWhat’s most notable about Atlantic’s 2013 report is the ways that it has evolved in format over past three years. The 2010 letter was long on text and short on images. In 2012, the Foundation released “Giving While Living: Marking 30 Years of Achievements: 1982-2012.” It’s gorgeous, but, at 58 pages in PDF form, not ideal for online consumption. The digital version feels like a companion to a printed piece—which it is.

This year’s “letter” is a different animal entirely.  Filled with images and multimedia riches — this thing is alive.  Heck, it’s even got an exclamation point in the first paragraph!  When was the last time you saw one of those in a report from a foundation?

Because Atlantic funds a wide and seemingly disparate set of issues, this report was crafted so that visitors could easily access and share the pieces that most resonate with them.  According to Atlantic’s Senior Web Strategist Elizabeth Cahill, “Social sharing lets us meet people where they are and helps build credibility with a wider – yet still targeted – audience.”

Click on the Twitter icon next to a piece about Atlantic’s efforts to improve education in Ireland and up pops this Tweet replete with robust hashtags:  How Ireland said YES for children via @atlantic’s annual letter http://bit.ly/12U31Vx #thinkbig #philanthropy #policy #ccref

I don’t have the type of mind that thinks in Twitter hashtags so make me look like I do and I’ll share your content all day long.

In talking to others who make a point of paying attention to the kinds of annual reports foundation produce, I’ve heard some folks say they are pleased to see the emergence of “performance reports” that go the extra effort to show what’s being done and what’s being accomplished. Others also say that maybe earlier suggestions that the annual report was nearing extinction — or should have been put out to pasture — were premature.  Some people also say they’re hopeful that more innovation and experimentation could make the annual report a useful communications tool.

I’ve worked in and around the field of philanthropy for almost 30 years because I still thrill to strategy that makes scarce resources go farther in advancing social change. These two reports remind me why I’m still here.


 Susan Herr, a regular Communications Network contributor, is a principal of  Trigger Creative.

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