We must get a grip on the content of reports

They contain pages of unread data that could usefully be cut, says Helen Simmons of the Diocese of London

Helen Simmons
Helen Simmons

I have spent a number of hours, if not days, over the past few weeks writing and editing the report from our trustees. The same thought goes through my head - and I am sure through everyone's head - as they take on this annual marathon task: is anyone ever going to read this?

The irony is that it has taken me 20 minutes to write this article, but I can be sure that many more people will read it than the report I have spent time sweating over.

This is particularly odd considering the lack of substance in these shorter articles when compared with your average report and accounts, which leads me to wonder if we are simply a nation lacking in the desire for real substance, or simply time-poor and therefore drawn to the shortened versions.

Many years ago, after a family bereavement, I thought I would see what a bit of group therapy with other people going through the same experience would be like. I rang the call centre for the charity Cruse and asked for some information. I was somewhat disappointed three days later to receive in the post the latest Cruse annual report and accounts. I say disappointed - but of course, as a passionate charity finance director, I soon became engrossed and read the entire document cover to cover.

As accountants, at our core we should value the financial statements dearly, yet I find with age that I am more and more inclined towards having a short and colourful report alongside black-and-white pullout accounts that can be easily discarded.

If the financial review covers all the main points and gives a standalone summary of the charity's financial position, and the "Future Plans" section demonstrates outcomes achieved and target outcome, then why add on another 20 pages of numbers?

Yet the reality is that most reports and accounts fail to do this (despite donkey's years of the sector discussing impact reporting).

And I'd like to take this opportunity to point out that just because you call something "Impact Report" in large vibrant colours on the front page, that doesn't actually make it an impact report.

In order to improve the situation, first, the Sorp committee and the Accounting Standards Board should rein in the sprawling "Notes to the Accounts" that inhabit the deserted wastelands by the end of the pensions note.

Second, charity directors, myself included, must get a grip on the report so the audience reading it might actually grow in the future rather than continue its steady decline.

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