Transform Mundane Financial Statements into Compelling Stories 

by Richard Tollefson 

Many nonprofit organizations are missing an opportunity to creatively tell their financial story in a way that attracts and inspires donors.

While staying compliant with GAAP and IRS rules is important, nonprofits can use 990 returns, financial statements and annual reports to tell a compelling story about their mission and the impact their organization has on the community.

With creativity and guidance, organizations can transform the mundane into a moving story that motivates donors. 

The Framework

Using these key components as a guide can help simplify the storytelling process: 

  • The Problem: Issues the organization is addressing and seeking to overcome
  • The Solution: Programs, initiatives and people that will work to overcome the problem
  • Cash: How the organization effectively manages cash
  • Sustainable Impact: Accomplishments of the organization

Form 990: Share Compelling Stories

The Form 990’s narrative portions offer nonprofits an opportunity to assert their mission, showcase their successes and attract donors, grantors and other contributors.

“This is your opportunity to tell your story,” says Brenda Blunt, CPA and partner at Eide Bailly. She suggests answering these questions when completing the 990, “’Have I identified the problem, explained what progress we’re making, and what hurdles we need help with?’ Whatever it is, make sure you tell your story,” she says.

Blunt offers these suggestions to use the Form 990 to tell a story:

  • Part I: Include the organization’s mission statement and most important activity. 
  • Part III: Write about the organization’s unique approach to solving a serious community problem and describe what it accomplished during the year.
  • Parts VI and VII: Use these sections to introduce the organization’s staff, partnerships and approach to managing cash.

Financial Statements: Make the Factual Fascinating

While financial statements can be more limiting, there are opportunities for storytelling, explains Madeline Moran, manager at Eide Bailly. “One of the best places to include the mission statement is in the footnote section of the financial statement. Including this in the first sentence of Note 1 allows the organization to emphasize the importance of its mission in solving the problem faced by its community,” says Moran.

“This is also a great place to highlight theZ organization’s staff, partnerships and initiatives,” she says. “Take the opportunity to go beyond the GAAP requirements to effectively describe the programs and add color to illustrate these. Get creative and highlight your story for your donors.” She recommends organizations add to the financial templates provided by their CPAs and accountants to tell their own stories through their financial statements.

The Management Discussion and Analysis section also represents an opportunity for nonprofits to step outside the restrictive confines of financial statements to better tell a story. The content must be consistent financially but can be used to tell a more detailed and descriptive financial story.

The Notes section can be used to tell how the organization manages cash and the successful outcomes the organization has achieved.

Annual Report: Inform and Ignite Donors

Annual reports offer more flexibility and leeway to tell an organization’s financial story, says Dan Tritch, market leader at Your Part-Time Controller. “You can use narrative and financial metrics to describe the problem in the community and how your organization will solve it,” he says.

Few nonprofits reveal cash balance metrics for their organization in their annual reports, says Tritch. Doing so can allow organizations to stand out by disclosing information such as present-day cash on hand or unrestricted cash vs. restricted cash. 

Sharing the organization’s financial story on other online platforms such as Charity Navigator, GuideStar and social media is also important.  

Richard Tollefson is founder and president at The Phoenix Philanthropy Group, an Arizona-based international consulting firm serving nonprofit organizations as well as institutional and individual philanthropists. 

Craft the Narrative in Unique Ways. Going beyond the traditional marketing tools and using 990s, financial statements and annual reports to tell a compelling story gives organizations another opportunity to share successes, build confidence with donors and inspire institutional and individual funders, board members and other members of the community to take action.

Speak Your Mind

In Business Dailies

Sign up for a complimentary year of In Business Dailies with a bonus Digital Subscription of In Business Magazine delivered to your inbox each month!

  • Get the day’s Top Stories
  • Relevant In-depth Articles
  • Daily Offers
  • Coming Events