Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Organizing Students: Annual Reports

This post is another in a series I am using to document my experiences and advice for students interested in operating high-functioning campus organizations. So far, I have written about, the role of food in hosting events, how to balance commitments between school and extra-curriculars and the importance of keeping track of members. Read my intent for this series here. I draw my opinions from experience with several student groups, but mostly with the Forum on Science Ethics and Policy - a group with a self explanatory name that plans many events each year.

Today I want to talk about the importance of history. Just as a scientist must keep good notes of her experiments, a student group must document its meetings and events. Please allow me to extend this metaphor. Why does our scientist keep notes? For several reasons: 1) For the sake of knowledge... the lab notebook is the formal (and legal) record of her work. If anyone ever wants to revisit this work, the lab notebook could be the first place he starts. 2) For reproducibility... when someone comes to a different conclusion, it must be possible to repeat our scientist's work to get to the bottom of the differences. 3) For utility... it may be a year before our scientist has enough data to publish her discoveries. (Maybe longer if she's a graduate student!) It is hard to remember everything so long ago. I should know, I just wrote a dissertation based on 4 years' work. I am glad that at least I could decipher my records. 4) For posterity... This reason is closely ties to the other three. Our scientist may be in Kenya or Spokane the next time someone has an idea about her work. It is important that the record be in the lab in case the scientist is not.

My point here is not a lesson in research skills; it is that records are important. Each of the reasons the scientist keeps her notes can apply to student groups. The goal for record keeping should be organizational memory. Future group members and leaders should be able to go back to previous years' events and see how they were planned, who partnered with the group, which leads showed promise but did not quite come to fruition, and what were the lessons learned from the event.

One way to think about record-keeping is to keep a tradition of producing an annual report. I can think of several reasons to keep an annual record of events, and go figure, the first four line up with our scientist's reasons for keeping a good lab notebook.
  1. What your group does is important. That should be recorded.
  2. Student groups have more turnover than most non-profit and volunteer groups. There needs to be a mechanism to help new folks remember the organization's past.
  3. Once a year is a good cycle to go back and organize the group's lab notebook into a readable story. It fits with leadership cycles and you do not forget as much in a year.
  4. Group sustainability is one of the most critical elements of a student organization. A permanent record is one way to keep track of the group's accomplishments when its past leaders are in Spokane or Kenya.
  5. FUNDRAISING. FUNDRAISING. FUNDRAISING. What better way to ask for financial support than by showing all of the great things you did last year? Folks (in FOSEP's case: academic departments) are more likely to give financial support if they know what kind of work you do.
In a nutshell, annual reports are good for fundraising and organizational sustainability. New members can learn a lot from past annual reports, donors can assess your success, and the group has something to show for all of its hard work.

Now that I've convinced you to make an annual report each year, I will give you some tips on how to actually MAKE one. I have heard from other groups that you can find graphic design students to help you with layout. They need it for their portfolio, and you need it to look good. Not everyone is good with design. Graphic design students ARE. FOSEP has gotten along fine without outside help by keeping the layout simple. Our two annual reports from 2004-05 and 2005-06 have a different look to them, but the layout is similar, as is the content. This year, we are building our report in Microsoft Word. It is useful to use something like Adobe PageMaker or MS Publisher, but you do not need to do so, especially if you do not know how to use those programs. It helps to have pictures and quotations to intersperse throughout the report. Keep a running collection of those during the year.

Lets talk about content. FOSEP's report follows a logical progression with the following sections:
  • Executive Summary: for the reader who doesn't know anything about your group
  • Introduction: What you have done in abstract form
  • Mission: Remind readers that what you are doing is important
  • Your Group's History: Emphasize growth and accomplishment
  • A letter from the Directors: Here is where you can philosophize a bit
  • Membership: Who is in your group? Build connections between members and potential donors
  • Honors and Recognition: List awards, publications, presentations or press coverage, for the group and its members
  • Events: What have you done? Be specific here... Present complete listing of titles and dates, and then go into more depth about how your events fit with your mission. For FOSEP, we use headings such as:
    • Interaction among scholars and community - Public Forums
    • Foster scientist-citizens - Seminars, Public policy
    • Provide leadership - Conferences, Meetings, Presentations
    • Increase dialogue among experts - Discussion Sections, Academic Outreach
    • Act as a clearinghouse of information - Website Info
  • Collaborations: Who did you partner with to hold your events?
  • Future Plans: What is the vision for the coming year?
  • Leadership: Who is responsible for this group? Include contact information and department
  • Finances: Who donated last year? Include a detailed account of how you spent the money you received and what your goals for the coming year are.
  • Appendix: Here we include letters of support. For example, this year FOSEP got a letter from Neal Lane, President Clinton's science adviser.
This is the order that works for FOSEP. You should develop your own strategy that fits your group. In the end, take the file to a print shop and print it on decent paper with a card stock cover and bind it with tape. You want to be able to send it in an envelop, so avoid the spirals.

Your annual report should be something you are proud of. Send it to potential donors, take it you events for people to read, and post a .pdf on your website. It may take a lot of effort to make the thing, but in the end, you will have a record of your years that is both a fundraising tool and a mechanism for organization sustainability.

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