140 pages vs. 140 characters: How can charities improve the reach of impact reports?

By Patrick Nash

After a leading charity communications consultant claimed that impact reports were ‘deeply boring’ and could be replaced by tweets, I explore the different methods charities can use to explain the difference they make to peoples’ lives.

Joe Saxton, co-founder of nfpSynergy, has labeled impact reports “deeply turgid, boring and dull” and suggested that organisations should instead start tweeting about the difference their work makes.

Speaking at a session on accountability at the Charity Finance Group’s annual conference in London, Saxton said that in the age of social media, it is essential that charities consolidate their messaging for maximum effect. He believes that impact reports, often comprising of thousands of words, are “not generally designed with the audience in mind” and that readers quickly lose interest.

Saxton claims that charities need simple, concise and accessible messages, issued through a select number of channels. He said:

“The reason charities don’t ask donors what they want is that they would say they want less communication, less often and through fewer channels”.

He says that a simply packaged message can communicate the ethos and achievements of an organisation effectively on social media, in news interviews or when talking to staff members.

Cracking Accountability

Impact reports were introduced in 2005 to reinforce public trust in charities, with accountability a hot topic in the third sector. There are even bodies such as the ImpACT Coalition (Improving Accountability, Clarity and Transparency) – made up of over 400 third sector organisations – that work to improve accountability and transparency and increase public understanding of how charities work.

There is certainly a heightened focus on preserving public trust in the third sector, improving public understanding of how charities operate.

According to Saxton however, achieving accountability could take longer than most charities realise. Saxton felt that impact reports mistakenly lead board members to assume that they have cracked accountability, when in reality there may be much more work to do.

At the same session, Kate Lee, chief executive of Myton Hospice Group, said improving transparency and accountability would allow charities to better understand what they did, what worked and what did not.

“Public trust in charities is high, but people do not understand what we do or how we operate,” she said.

A culture of transparency and accountability, particularly being comfortable with admitting mistakes and dealing with failure, led to greater confidence and innovation, Lee said.

The strengths of impact reports

Impact reports aim to engage, inform and inspire their stakeholders by communicating clearly the impact of their work.

Good impact reporting helps beneficiaries, volunteers, donors and other supporters understand and engage with a charity’s vision. It also helps staff and trustees focus on results and how to achieve their vision.

Undoubtedly, all charities should tell their stakeholders how they are fulfilling their purposes and achieving the change that they seek to effect. However, could it be time to explore ways of communicating this message differently?

So what should charities do?

Social media tools, such as Twitter, are becoming increasingly important channels to help charities get their message across and to relay their achievements and goals. But, that is not to say that impact reporting should be forgotten all together.

It’s essential that charities communicate their impact, with clear, concise messaging that explains exactly how they help their end users.

By combining digital communication strategies with full impact reports, charities can combine targeted, concise messages on social media platforms with integrated links to full reports, should people wish to read on. There is, however, definitely an argument for impact reports to be more tightly written and designed to make them easier to digest.

This can certainly help to shift public focus away from concerns about administration costs or chief executives’ salaries, and towards the messages charities want their stakeholders to remember.

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