Doing the Most Good, Digitally
It's hard to deny the need for change when it’s staring you straight in the face. That's how the need to transition the Salvation Army's annual report to digital-only occurred to Maj. George Hood, the organization's national community relations and development secretary.
One day, about two years ago, the years' worth of print annual reports sitting in the storage room in Hood's office prompted a change. Hood says he scratched his head and thought, "In this age of instant communication online, we could save a lot of money and be far more efficient and get much broader distribution by going 100 percent to a virtual annual report."
In the past, the organization had sent its annual report, as most organizations do, in the mail to key donors, both corporate and major. And for the past five or six years it's offered a downloadable annual report on its Web site — basically a printable version of the mailed annual report.
Making the annual report digital is a combination of efficiency, conservation and finding people at the point where they are receptive to receiving information, Hood says. And that's now electronic.
"We've really committed to an interactive, viral annual report," he explains, "and no longer will print paper annual reports."
Diane Fannon, principal at The Richards Group, the Dallas-based firm that does branding and marketing for the Salvation Army, adds that going digital with the annual report underscores the organization's tagline "Doing the Most Good."
"If we're accountable for everybody's donations and doing the most good, having [the annual reports] sit in Maj. Hood's closet is not doing the most good," she says.
Hood planted the seed, and The Richards Group took the idea and ran with it. What it came up with was like going from night to day. It was the first time the agency had ever created a 100 percent digital annual report with videos. But the Salvation Army always tells stories in its annual report, so video was a great way to tell those stories in three dimensions, Fannon says.
The site features four incredibly moving videos of a handful of beneficiaries of Salvation Army support telling their stories of how the organization helped them, demonstrating where donor dollars go.
Hood says the annual report has been well received and, in some cases, transformative. Without revealing the name of the institution, he told of a group of folks in the communications department at a major national university who watched the annual report as a team to determine if it was something they wanted to do at the school. After watching the video on the youth-intervention program at the Salvation Army chapter in Hilo, Hawaii, a member of the team who was a proclaimed atheist told his colleagues that the annual report might make him a believer again.
Hood says it's an impact the organization wasn't expecting, but it shows the power of video to tell the stories of the work organizations are doing.
The annual report also features videos of the Salvation Army's commissioner, Israel L. Gaither, and chairman, Rob Pace, speaking to the vision of the organization. At the end of each video, viewers are given the option to share the video via MySpace, Facebook or YouTube, and videos also feature a button visitors can click to read the contents of the video in story or letter form. The entire annual report also is available as a printable PDF with the click of a button.
Hood said these features were all included to offer flexibility.
"When we started talking about creating the virtual annual report, I had people say to me, 'But, you know, there's always those people who like to have the print copy, hard copy in their hand.'
The instant solution was that it’s downloadable. Visitors can print out any and all of the content.
"We believe that video is the form that is most moving to the general public today and that if we could have these actual people telling their story and you hear it coming straight from them as opposed to looking at a picture on a printed page, it's far more effective," he adds. "And yet we recognize that there are those who want to have that hard copy in their hand. So each page can be printed out, and local [chapters] will be able to use that effectively in their local communities when they're talking to funding opportunities and foundations and corporations. They can either link people up to the virtual report or they can print out a hard copy and take it and sit at a table and talk about it."
The organization has notified donors of the digital annual report via an e-mail campaign and also is running what it hopes will be a viral campaign on social-networking sites where it has a presence. One key benefit to the annual report site is that its trackable. Hood says initial tracking shows visitors to the annual report page are spending from five to six minutes on it.
"[With a paper annual report] you put it in the mail, you don't know if it's hitting anyone's desk or if it's going into the trashcan," Hood says. "But in this case we can determine what the traffic is and ... for someone to stay on a site for six minutes is pretty phenomenal — and yet that's the early indicator, that we're getting anywhere from five and a half to six minutes of review time."
The annual report site also features a "Donate Now" button to encourage those moved by the emotional stories of the organization's work to support it.
"We felt it was appropriate to put a donate button on there because the stories are so emotional," Hood says. "And if somebody decides, 'Gosh, I want to support that; I want to keep that going,' we gave them the opportunity to do it."
Hood says he encourages other nonprofits to look into a digital annual report as an option — though he notes that some organizations might find more success in sticking with a traditional printed annual report; a smaller agency in a local environment, for example, might find that the printed report is more intimate for them.
Across the board
The videos used in the annual report were edited into 30-second commercials so the organization can repurpose them elsewhere. And now that the technical platform is in place, interested Salvation Army chapters can have their own, local annual reports made digital. For now, however, Hood says most of the chapters and the organization as a whole is rather stunned by the site.
"But I can tell you," he adds, "that there's buzz going all over the Salvation Army locally on ‘how can we take advantage of this for our market?’
"In all reality, we're looking across the board that everything we do in terms of communication is now going to be digital," he says. "Everything is going out through the Internet, and I'm looking at every strategy that we have in place in terms of how we communicate with the general public and with corporate America. [Doing it digitally is] green, it's quick, it's efficient.
“For all of those reasons, I keep saying to my staff the old business model is gone,” he adds. “The traditional model of how we communicate and communicate quickly and effectively is gone, and we all have to make the transition into the digital world. That's just where it's at. So we're looking at every form of communication and how we do it and how we can become more effective and more nimble in using the technology that's right there at our fingertips."'
View the Salvation Army's digital annual report here.