ANNUAL REPORTS: Accounts online

Julie Pybus

- Your readers might want to interrogate the figures contained in your annual report, so use your imagination to think about how making it interactive could help them do this

- Look out for guidance from the Charity Commission about online reporting, due to be published before 2005

- Research how your web site could be made accessible to people with disabilities. The RNIB has a range of consultancy services for helping organisations.

FIVE ONLINE ANNUAL REPORTS REVIEWED

Joe Saxton is a consultant at nfpSynergy, a think-tank specialising in the not-for-profit sector. He is the author of Virtual Promise, an annual report looking at the use of the internet in the voluntary sector and was involved in setting up a voluntary sector task force with the Government office of the e-envoy. He was previously director of communications at the RNID.

The internet is capable of so much more than taking printed pages and putting them online. Sadly, none of the five web sites reviewed appeared to have fully grasped this opportunity. Below is what I think about the sites and how they could have been improved.

Hope and homes for children (www.hopeandhomes.org)

Despite the slow speed of this web site, it does demonstrate the work of the organisation. There is both an annual review download (but it requires printing off 30 pages) and a useful pop-up box with the financial report, though both are slow to find. However, the overall site does act as an effective online review. I would particularly have liked to have seen an online equivalent of the paper version's 'who we are and what we do' section included.

UK for UNHCR (www.refaid.org.uk)

In general, this site is clear, colourful and well-laid out. There is a link on the home page direct to the annual review, but a 'This page cannot be found' alert popped up when I clicked on the link. I eventually found a download annual review button which let me print off four pages. Sadly, the background tint and tiny font size made the text virtually unreadable. A lovely web site but an annual review which hasn't been adapted to the online medium.

South Yorkshire Funding Bureau (www.shef.ac.uk/uni/projects/oip/syfab)

A simple straight forward web site with a clear graphic style. The annual report section is a series of questions and answers. How many organisations did we help last year? What is our income? There is a simple set of graphics for income and expenditure. Actually, I'm fantasising. Another PDF download, another 24 pages to be printed, but doubtless all very interesting.

NSPCC (www.nspcc.org.uk)

While many charity web sites are small enough to act as an online report, the NSPCC's site is huge. Thanks to the sitemap, the report and accounts are easy enough to find and better still I can download the past four years of reports. There is a page of key achievements in the last year, too. But as a market leader, the NSPCC could do better. Where are the quarterly financial updates, or online job applications?

WWF-UK (www.wwf.org.uk)

WWF's site is rich with pictures and news, so finding the annual review is rather like looking for a dull needle in a colourful haystack. Having eventually found the right section, the PDF download was, of course, de rigueur. WWF clearly has a lot to say as the pdf took a while. The children demanded to play on Cbeebies, but still my annual report download was, well, downloading. Maybe the panda didn't want to be squirted down the phone line?

Charities can potentially save thousands of pounds and reach a wider audience by putting their annual reports and accounts online. Julie Pybus takes a look at what to consider when publishing documents on the internet.

For the past 20 years, the Charities' Annual Report and Accounts Awards has been encouraging voluntary organisations to put their best efforts into creating good annual reports and accounts. But this year the awards will be different.

Instead of opening hundreds of envelopes and leafing through stacks of paper-based reports, the judges will simply be able click on to charities' web sites and look at electronic versions.

Only online entries are being accepted because the organisations that run the awards, the Charities Aid Foundation and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, believe that the time is right for charities to take the next step in the development of annual reporting. Not only do they want to see great annual reports, but they believe they should be available on the charity's web site.

Brian Bannister, award judge and director of communications at ICAEW, says they want to encourage more charities to put their annual reports online. "This year the judges thought that the production of online annual reports by charities was lagging behind the corporate sector," he says.

"Given the low cost of developing online reports, we thought that charities - whatever their size - were missing out."

There are a number of benefits that charities can gain by taking advantage of the internet. One of the most significant is being able to fulfil their duty of accountability and transparency in an era when charity stakeholders, such as donors, beneficiaries and journalists, expect immediate access to comprehensive information.

Significant cost savings

The Charity Commission hopes to encourage such transparency with its plans to start scanning in the accounts that the commissioners receive next year and making sections of them available to the public via its web site.

A more immediately obvious benefit is the effect on the bottom line. There are massive potential cost savings to be gained by going electronic.

By 2005, the Charity Commission will accept annual reports and accounts submitted online, saving the voluntary sector printing and postage costs and increasing efficiency within the commission. One charity recently saved thousands of pounds when it decided to stop sending full annual reports and accounts to its supporters. Bearing in mind that only a tiny minority of supporters are interested in reading the full document, the charity plans to send them all summary reports with a note that they can look at the web site if they want to see the accounts in full detail.

Jane Leathley, director of South Yorkshire Funding Advice Bureau, says that since this small organisation put its annual report online it has saved her time and money sending the document out to people. However, she emphasises that core supporters are still sent hard copies.

Having an annual report online means that it is more easily accessible to a wider variety of people than those who would ordinarily see the paper document. Murtaza Jessa, founding partner of chartered accountants Trustient, points out that he has referred overseas-based funders to charities' web sites to see annual reports and accounts whereas it may have been difficult for them to get a hard copy cheaply and so quickly.

To submit annual reports and accounts online to the Charity Commission or to the Charities Annual Report and Accounts Awards, the documents must comply with the relevant legislation and guidance. Bannister says that the awards judges are looking for "transparency of financial information, a clear indication of what the charity does and a call to action (i.e. a fundraising or support request)", the same qualities that have been required from annual reports in previous years of the competitions.

Limit download times

At present, most of those charities that put their reports and accounts online simply duplicate the paper version of their document by scanning it in or by getting their designer to save it as an Adobe Acrobat PDF file at the same time as he or she is sending it to the printer.

The South Yorkshire Funding Advice Bureau has done this and so has the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. However, they have gone about it in different ways. While the Diana fund's annual review is a weighty 2.1MB PDF that can take some time to download as it is packed with images and bright colours, the South Yorkshire Funding Advice Bureau's report is a mere 113KB that downloads in a flash because it is a simple text-based document.

Leathley says: "As we want to put most of our publications on our web site, it is a deliberate editorial policy of ours to go for simple, easy-to-read designs."

Bannister agrees that this can be a useful tactic. He says: "Charities should avoid making the files too big to easily download. You have got to think about the end- users who might have older machines with smaller memories."

The differences between reading a document on a computer screen compared with a paper version must be considered. While a reader might be prepared to pore over some nicely printed out figures, they might be less likely to spend the same amount of time squinting at their computer screen. In addition, many users are unwilling to spend their own resources printing out more than a few pages. In such circumstances, it is worth anticipating that some people will benefit from being sent a hard copy.

The internet, of course, has much more potential than simply the ability to host a replica of paper-based reports. Joe Saxton, consultant at voluntary sector think-tank nfpSynergy, says: "I would love to see charities take up the challenge of putting their annual report data online in an imaginative and accessible format."

Howard Lake, publisher of the web site for charity fundraisers www.fundraising.co.uk, agrees. "The internet can offer interactivity and the ability to slice and dice information," he says. "If charities can do this online, you might get people understanding accounts better. The accounts can become a powerful tool as there is lots of scope for clever fundraising and for supporting campaigning work."

However, only a small proportion of the corporate sector is this well developed. One company that has invested in this area is Intec Telecom Systems whose web site, www.intec-telecom-systems.com, boasts an interactive annual report. Viewers can easily navigate between different sections and even download Excel spreadsheets from the accounts to analyse the figures themselves.

Lake sees similar techniques working for voluntary organisations. "People could use an online report see how a charity's fundraising income has changed over several years. This would save them having to obtain and then compare many paper-based copies of the annual report."

A new way of attracting funds

Voluntary organisations could also exploit potentially valuable fundraising opportunities. Bannister points out that there haven't been enough 'calls to action' in past entries to the Annual Reports and Accounts Awards.

If annual reports are online 'click to give' buttons could be included at key points in the report. "You could catch them while the iron's hot," he points out.

By creating real web pages using the interactive language of the internet, HTML, instead of PDF files, there are more opportunities for charities to make their publications available to people with disabilities. For example, by using the right HTML formatting for a web page blind and partially sighted people can use their home technology to convert the information into synthesised speech or Braille.

Voluntary organisations should also consider integrating the use of email into their online annual report. Lake suggests that the publication of the annual report could be previewed in emails to supporters. Interested people could then sign up to receive the report when it is produced. In doing this, charities can generate a useful list of a specific sub-section of their supporters.

The judges of the annual reports awards, however, aren't expecting such imaginative uses of the internet just yet. A simple PDF version of the report could be enough to win as long as it fulfils the criteria for entry to the awards. When the winners are announced in November, it is hoped that this could mark the start of an exciting new phase in the often-neglected area of charity annual reporting.

- Charities and voluntary groups have until the end of June to enter the Charities' Online Accounts Awards.

- For further information, visit www.CAFonline.org/ onlineawards.

TEN TOP TIPS FOR ONLINE ACCOUNTS

- When producing a PDF version of your annual report, consider how long it might take users to download - you don't want to crash their computers. If the document is too unwieldy, you could reduce the number of graphics and pictures

- Providing an executive summary separately to the main figures could be useful as not everyone will want to delve into the entire report or print off more than a few pages. If you don't put the entire document online, ensure that there is an email address or contact details for users who want to request the complete annual report and accounts

- Don't forget to print some hard copies as the online version won't replace the paper versions that you may still have to send to key supporters

- Ensure that an online version fulfils the relevant legislation such as the Accounting and Reporting by Charities: Statement of Recommended Practice 2000 (the SORP), and the Charities Act 1993

- According to CAF and ICAEW, online accounts should fulfil the following: transparency of financial information, a clear indication of what the charity does and a call to action

- Delegate a member of staff to check that the correct version of the annual report appears online. It can and does happen that charities discover discrepancies between their printed and online versions

- Think about how you can include calls to action in the online accounts such as a 'click to give' button

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus
Follow us on:
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Google +

Latest Jobs

RSS Feed

Third Sector Insight

Sponsored webcasts, surveys and expert reports from Third Sector partners

Markel

Expert Hub

Insurance advice from Markel

Digital fundraising tips and tricks

Digital fundraising tips and tricks

Partner Content: Presented By Markel

Third Sector Logo

Get our bulletins. Read more articles. Join a growing community of Third Sector professionals

Register now