In the past weeks I have written about looking back on what you have done and achieved and about planning your next year. This time I want to look back again, at your finances. Specifically, at the different aspects of accountability and reporting.
As nonprofit you aim to serve a common good, whether that is a specific community (for instance people with HIV/AIDS) or a value (for instance nature protection). Your work is not just to work toward achieving your vision and mission. It is also to report back on what you have been able to achieve. This way you can take responsibility for your successes, for the things that may not have gone well yet and for the lessons learned. Being transparent about this is important to build and maintain trust. And this is of course needed for you to have a chance at being successful in your endeavours.
Financial accountability is nothing more, nor less, than reporting on how moneys generated have been invested and on the return on this investment. The cost of success, and the costs of lessons learned, so to say.
Accountability is in the eye of the beholder
There is reporting and reporting. Whether your reporting equals taking responsibility and being transparent depends on access to your reporting. This defines, in my view, true accountability. Access is not just about making something publicly available or not. If you make a beautiful report that someone in the community you serve cannot understand, you are not truly accountable to that community. Because they have no way of checking your statements against their perceived reality if they cannot, for whatever reason, fully grasp your statements or the information you are providing. Therefore, in my view, catering to the needs of the user of your information is key.
Who are your users?
Above I identified one set of users of your reporting: the people in the community you serve. Another set of users is likely the people you serve by making it possible for them to support you with money, expertise or in kind. A third set of users is probably anybody else who is a stakeholder in the issue you work on. And finally, you should expect that your own team is a user, too.
So, what does this mean for my reporting?
In short, this means that you need to keep in mind your variety of users when you are preparing your reports. Not only at the stage of deciding what words to use, but also when you are thinking about which platform to use for sharing your reports. And even when deciding what shape or form the report will have. For some communities, videos and visuals or audio are more accessible than text, for instance. Some require print rather than online, or vice versa.
But I have my obligations!
I hear you! Most institutional donors have their own format for your reporting towards them. That is OK, because the circle of users of this report is very clear and the end user is the one setting the bar. There may also be specific requirements in your country for your annual reporting as organization. Obviously, you must follow these formats and requirements.
When it comes to your annual report, mostly requirements are related to certain information that needs to be presented. For instance, you must present your financial information for the previous year so that the reader can see what the differences are between the reporting year and the previous year. As you can see, such requirements are in fact keeping in mind the users of the report as well!
In addition to following these requirements you must keep in mind who will be reading your annual report. What are terms they will be familiar with and which terms must be explained? How can you present the required data in a way that it will be comprehensible and attractive for them?
How to report then?
In addition to your annual report for the wider public, including your own community, and your reporting towards institutional donors in line with their own formats, it can be good to be accountable to your community during the year, too. You can do this by way of a newsletter, your website or social media platforms or face-to-face meetings. Or any combination. Being accountable is not about sharing lengthy written reports. It is about sharing what was done, for which amounts of money received from where, and what came out of that. This is something you can do just as easily in a short video, an infographic or a slideshow.
Think about who you are serving and who the users of your information are (or will be). Think about their needs and constraints when it comes to this information. What does accountability mean in this context, for the shape or form of your information, the platform you use to share it, the frequency of sharing, the type of information to share, etc….? Think also about your current obligations, towards institutional donors and in regard of your annual report. Make a plan how you can ensure true accountability throughout the year. (Hint: there may be a link with the planning I spoke about last week).
Want to know more and ask questions?
If you want to discuss this more – jump into the Facebook group and get input from a wide range of peers and from myself!
If you want to learn how to make your own annual report – including financial statement – you can join my course Annual Reporting for nonprofits! You can find more information here. You can also register there. Registration opens on Monday 30 November 2020 and closes on Sunday 7 December 2020. Doors to the course open on 13 December 2020.
Here is how you can join my free Facebook group
You can join my free Facebook group how to become a professional and resilient nonprofit with Suzanne Bakker here. In this group we will create a safe space for open exchange and discussion on potentially sensitive topics like boards, nonprofit management, fundraising, etc.