Preparing reports is not the favorite activity of nonprofits and other organizations. As a matter of fact it is often the least favorite part. Leaders and program staffs of organizations want to spend their time delivering their services – helping people. The accounting staff wants to do accounting. Fund raisers want to raise funds. Grants staff wants to spend their time on identifying and writing grants. But reports must be written or the funding dries up.
There are some things that can be done to greatly reduce the pain and frustration of preparing reports.
Before the Report
Before you begin preparing the report there are some actions that will not only make the report preparation easier, they will also improve the quality of your reports. You may be reluctant to spend time on some of these suggestions, but it is really a matter of “pay me now, or pay me more later”. The time you spend on these groundwork things will save you time and agony when you actually prepare the report.
First be certain that you understand the reporting requirements of the one who will receive the report. Recipients can be funders, partners, board members, donors and, sometimes, licensing/certification entities. Your understand should include:
> Don’t assume anything. If the requirements and guidelines are not clear -- ASK
Be very careful that you do not use familiarity as an opportunity to scrimp on the details. When a funder has been giving you money for a long time or a donor has been supporting your efforts for years, you may feel that they are a sure bet. They know the wonderful things you do and there is no reason that they will stop helping you. But what if something changes – guidelines, contact person, number of competitors for their money? Any report you provide should be done as if the recipient knows nothing about you. Because you never know when that might suddenly be the case.
Make a timeline for all facets of the reporting process.
> Set dates for everything – collection, tallying, analyzing, writing, proofing, etc.
> Put actions on your calendar and the one for the organization. Be sure everyone knows the dates. This makes it a commitment and it needs to be a commitment to actually happen
Have someone from outside your organization look at your plan, including outcomes and measurements, to be certain everything is clear and rational. You can trade with another organization (they read yours, you read theirs). You can hire an outside consultant or maybe use faculty or students at a college or university.
Develop a tracking plan that gathers the data as you go. No “catching up” (translation: recreating at the end of the month or when the report is written.) This practice causes inaccuracies, stress and likely makes something else suffer. Include dates, remember there is not a commitment unless there are dates associated with an action. To be sure you are on target to meet your commitments and produce the expected outcomes. There is nothing more frustrating than getting to the date you are supposed to write the report and find that you are missing things. It’s better to spend a few minutes at pre-determined intervals to be sure you are on target than to get into a OMG situation where you are running around like a crazy person trying to find and recreate the information for the report.
Preparing the Report
When it is time to prepare the report it is crucial that you set aside the proper amount of time to do the work. Report preparation does not turn out well when it is one task of a multi-tasking session. Interruptions will actually cause you to spend more time on the report preparation. Be very careful that you do not use other tasks and people to avoid doing the report. Here are some tips that will help you do quality reporting and lessen frustration.
Do it in the manner required and/or agreed upon. Changing the manner could result in you not having the information needed because you gathered data for the original manner. It could also mean the report will not meet the requirements of the report recipient.
Be on time. If you have done the proper work before the report and you set aside time to do it, this should not be a problem.
Do quality reporting.
Don’t make excuses. Even if funders are tolerant of excuses, you do yourself no favors for future funding.
Have someone outside your organization look at reports to ensure they are clear, concise and impressive. You can use the same organization or person you had review your plan for reporting.
Recognize when you need professional help and get it. Your specialty is not preparing reports; the quality and benefits may be higher from getting professional help. Also, it may be less costly to outsource some or all of the report preparation so that you and your staff have time to do the business of your organization. Some options for outsourcing: Consultant, Higher Education, Intern, Board Member or even another organization.
Fallout from Inadequate Reporting
There are definitive consequences from reporting that is inadequate or late. The most serious fallout is loss of funding either immediate or future. If your funding is reimbursement based, you could not only lose funding, you would also have spent money that you will never recover. Poor reporting is likely to ruin your chances for future funding from the report recipient and from potential funders, because funders talk. Inadequate reporting will likely result in the need to supplement the original report; this takes more time than doing it properly the first time. Supplemental reporting, loss of funding and worrying that the report might not be adequate cause stress. Something you probably have more than enough of.
Benefits of Good and Exceptional Reporting
On the flip side of the consequences of inadequate reporting, there are many benefits of good reporting, even more from exceptional reporting.
Meeting the requirements and being on-time shows that you are cooperative and compliant and have respect for the needs and specifications of funders and other report recipients.
Using appropriate statistics and examples shows how well you are delivering on your commitments and proves that you are producing the promised outcomes.
An exceptional report gives you an opportunity to brag, which in this case is not only satisfying; it also proves your value. If you see reporting as an opportunity to brag instead of an annoyance, your reports will be less aggravating to do and present a positive impression.
A report that delivers also provides a foundation on which you can build future proposals, requests and other things. In my experience as a consultant helping organizations with reports I have seen many uses for parts of the report, including:
> Other grants
> Funding justifications
> Development of programs
> Planning – strategic and tactical
> Feasibility testing
> Press releases
> Annual report
A complete report provides an assessment of progress and identification of obstacles to help your staff and board understand the situation and positions you to make adjustments.
An exceptional report helps you build consensus and market your organization.
> It helps you maintain belief and support among your followers
> It aids you in development of advocates – partners, donors, fans
> It assists you in promoting your organization and programs to potential partners, funders and participants
A well-done report provides you and your staff with a sense of accomplishment. Seeing in print (or on a monitor) your progress and successes makes them more real and just plain feels good.
Janet W Christy is a consultant specializing in getting information (from people's heads, reports, studies, focus groups, etc.) into a usable form, such as an operational/business plan, grant application, evaluation/assessment, report, policy manual or developmental plan. Janet’s blog can be found at https://janetwchristy.wordpress.com/ You can see more information about Janet and her firm, Leverage & Development, LLC at http://www.leverageanddevelopment.com.