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Would your annual report ever sound like this?

My RSS feed from Wired magazine doesn't typically bear much relation to association management, but Maryn McKenna's summary of the latest report from the Independent Monitoring Board of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative caught my eye: "Scathing Report: Polio Eradication 'Not... Any Time Soon'."

Maryn writes that the report "is striking for its brutally frank and even frustrated tone." She later writes that the report "identifies problems that extend throughout the worldwide effort. The board is strikingly candid in asking pointed questions about them."

The nature of the report isn't exactly parallel to an association annual report, but I couldn't help but compare them. The truth, though, is they don't really compare at all. The association annual reports I've seen have typically been positive, light on genuine analysis, and rather dull. Anything but brutally frank.

This disparity could be a byproduct of vague missions and goals. Clearly, eradicating polio is a "big, hairy audacious goal." Bigger goal equals more room for failure, which an honest report will identify. But a vague goal, like "advancing the industry," means there's more room to be just as vague in assessing results.

The disparity could also result from who writes the report. In the case of the polio initiative, the report was written by an independent board convened specifically "to monitor and guide the progress" of initiative's strategic plan. In the case of most associations, an annual report is assembled by staff, possibly with involvement or sign-off of the board—two parties with a clear bias toward highlighting an association's success and downplaying its shortfalls. Perhaps a committee of at-large members tasked with authoring an annual report would offer more honest analysis.

Of course, the actual substance of the polio initiative report is disappointing, from a global-health perspective. But sugarcoating the lack of progress toward the initiative's goal would have been a disservice to the people dedicating their energy toward eradicating the disease and to those who still suffer from it. The report's honesty is exactly the kind of kick in the pants that can motivate people to fix problems, and it's exactly the kind of analysis that has to take place when measuring progress toward a mission, whatever it may be.



The polio report is not an organization's Annual Report, though. It is an independent critique of a particular activity.

An association-commissioned report on an activity related to a particular industry can also be expected to be frank or even critical. That's its purpose.

An association's annual report, on the other hand, is a promotion for the association. While it should not gloss over existing problems, it is still appropriate for it to maintain a positive tone.

Thanks David. Fair points, indeed. It's true that associations tend to view their annual reports as promotional material. And I guess that's why I find them uninspiring. For an association whose goal is to improve its industry, I'd rather see something more along the lines of "The State of [Insert Industry/Profession Here]" as a yearly report, rather than something focused primarily on the association's programs and services. That might strike a good balance between an independent critique and a promotional tool.

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