Remember the three most important things about writing reports:
1. Know as much about your reader as possible before you put pen to paper; keep thinking about your reader all the time you are writing.
2. Bearing your reader in mind, use the simplest words and sentences to express your meaning clearly. In other words, spoon-feed your reader. Make your writing as easy to read as possible.
3. Before you begin a paper, write a plan.
In report-writing the key to success is planning—that is, writing a good outline. A good outline will enable you to structure and organize your thoughts in a logical way that will make it easy for your reader to absorb your information.
A Report Outline
Some partners or donors may have forms they want you to use when reporting on grant agreements. In cases where there is no preferred format, the following generic report outline should prove useful. It can also be used for a variety of other reports that you may be called on to prepare in the course of your career.
The generic report format below can be used for all sorts of reports, not just for reporting to donors. When reporting to donors, it is useful to identify what type of report you are writing. For instance, it might be an annual report, a final report, a semi-annual report, or a special report.
Generic Report Format
Covering Letter/Memo Report Title Summary (may be omitted in short reports) Terms of Reference (or Purpose of the Report)
Covering Letter: This is where you address the person most interested in the report. Following the most important thing about writing, the more you know about this person, the better your covering letter will be. If possible, have that person in mind as you write.
Your covering letter will summarize the reason for the report and its content, and provide an opportunity to highlight any sections or recommendations that you think will be of particular interest, or on which you especially wish to receive feedback. You should mention if the report is annual, final, special, or other.
In signing the covering letter, you (or your Director) are taking full responsibility for the content of the report.
Report Title: The title should leave the reader in no doubt as to the subject of the report. If necessary, use a subtitle. HIV/AIDS Education Through Rural Radio: First annual report is a better title than Report on HIV/AIDS Education Through Rural Radio.
Summary: As with a proposal, the summary of a report is often the most important section , because it is likely to be the only part that most readers look at. You need a summary for all reports longer than, say, five to seven pages.
The summary will briefly mention all the most interesting points in the report, as well as the report's purpose and main conclusions and recommendations.
A summary may contain subheadings to make it easier to read.
Be careful not to waste words in a summary—make every word count. Don't say: Conclusions about the success of the radio programs are drawn. Instead, repeat the specific conclusion: Unexpectedly, the radio programs led to listeners (on average 95%) making at least one effort to change their attitudes towards those affected by HIV/AIDS.
Because the summary makes reference to all the other sections of the report, it must be written after the other sections are complete. A report summary must always be written last.
Because the summary is all most readers (including the most important) will ever read, it requires time to get it right. Allow enough time to write the best summary you can, and then re-read and edit it.
The summary should be as short as it possibly can be. President Ronald Reagan required his staff to give him a one-page summary of world activities every morning. They had to work all night to squeeze information on many, often momentous, events into a single page. They learned it could be done. The summary should be no longer than 10% of the length of the final report.
Terms of Reference or Purpose of the Report: This is easy to write, and should take no more than a single paragraph. Here are some of the reasons you might be writing to a donor:
- The purpose of this report is to summarize progress on Project X from June 2002 to June 2003.
- This is the final report on Project X, which has been underway in Uganda since 2002.
- This is the second annual report on Project X; significant delays outside the control of the project mean that the rural radio station X is hereby applying for a no-cost extension. If this request is granted, the project, now slated to end in March 2005, will be extended for completion in March 2006.
If you are reporting to donors on a specific grant, use the grant agreement and/or the project proposal to structure your report, and make specific reference to outputs promised in the project concept note.
In this section you may want to refer to the project management arrangements. For instance, you may report that two project workshops were held during the reporting period, which were attended by farmer representatives and all partners. Such meetings, as well as any training sessions or radio programs developed, might be important milestones for your project and should be mentioned in the monitoring procedure part of your report.
Findings: In this section you present all the information you gathered without interpretation. To some extent, use tables and other aids to help your readers to understand the information or data as quickly and easily as possible.
Conclusions: Here is where you present your interpretation of the findings. You may wish to use the same headings as in the Findings section. Remember, there is no shame in reporting failure if lessons have been learned. If things are going wrong with your project, do not be tempted to blame everything on others, or events outside your control. Sometimes the fault is yours or that of your colleagues. If so, tell the truth, explain what you learned and how you will avoid making the same mistake in the rest of the project or in future, and move on. Donors are human. They will respect your honesty and learn to trust you more.
Recommendations: These are the steps you think should be taken, or not taken, based on the conclusions in the previous section. You can write recommendations using “should.” However, you may want to make some recommendations more strongly than others. In this case you can use “it is suggested that” for the less strong, and “it is recommended that” for those points you feel more strongly about. Good recommendations are not just your own opinion, but those logically based on the findings and conclusions.
Attaching a Financial Report: Some evaluation reports that are sent to donors, and certainly all annual and final reports, need to be accompanied by a financial report that shows accurately how money has been spent in the intervening period.
It is recommended that these reports be prepared by the accountant or person in charge of the radio station accounts, and then reviewed together with the project leaders before being sent to the donor. It is very important that the financial information be correctly and clearly presented.
If all is going well with your project, you may not need a recommendations section in your financial report, or your recommendation may be to continue to implement the project as designed.
If, however, implementation of project funds is not following the plan envisaged in the grant agreement or contract with your donor, you may wish to propose a redesign. As noted earlier, this might involve a request for a no-cost extension, or for flexibility among budget items. You may also wish to eliminate one site, accelerate the project, add another partner, or redirect your attention to a related area.
Annexes: This is the place for details that you cannot bear to leave out, but which the donor will not need to follow the logic of your report. Annexes are where to put examples of outputs like workshop reports or radio scripts, lists of people interviewed during monitoring and evaluation of the project’s progress, etc.
How long should a report be? As short as possible. Spare your time, your reader’s time, and the paper. The most effective reports are crisp, clear, open, honest, and short.