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Measuring The Sky: not your average annual report

By Sarah Jackson
November 6, 2019

Nonprofit communications consultant Sarah Jackson interviewed Deepa Ranganathan, communications coordinator at FRIDA, about the feminist fund’s remarkable new annual report.

“To ‘measure the sky’ is to measure something quite impossible and intangible, and a lot of the impact that FRIDA’s work creates moves between the realms of tangible and intangible success,” Deepa Ranganathan explained when I asked about the significance of the title selected for FRIDA’s 2018 annual report. “Not every ‘success’ can be measured but we do it anyway.”

Ranganathan is communications coordinator at FRIDA, The Young Feminist Fund. FRIDA provides small grants to newly established young feminist groups in the global south, supporting emerging forms of organizing and unregistered groups, especially those composed of and/or working with marginalized populations, who have little or no access to funding from larger donors.

Using a participatory grantmaking model—in which applicants are invited to vote on which proposals in their region receive funding—grants are awarded as flexible funds and core support, which allows groups to define their own budgets and dedicate funds to where they are most needed. FRIDA also supports and connects grantee partners through an accompaniment program, learning exchanges, and events bringing together young feminist activists to strengthen the larger movement.

This disruptive, participatory approach is well captured by Measuring The Sky, a microsite that offers a radical departure from most annual reports through its reflective, artistic visual design and its commitment to cooperation in both production and theme.

Including many different perspectives

An annual report working group was formed from different teams at FRIDA, aiming to break down organizational silos and expand the circle working on the report beyond the usual collaboration between Communications and Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning.

“This was to ensure that it gets a much-needed perspective and input of various teams to so as to create something that is holistic and resonates with all,” Ranganathan explains. “Each member brought a different vantage point into the working group and represented what it meant to compose and consume an annual report that would make equal sense to all teams and beyond.”

“The working group met on a fortnightly basis deciding on every aspect of the report at different stages—from brainstorming on the platform and visual experience to finalizing on a broad theme, from putting all of the meta content together bit-by-bit to editing and proofreading it, and making sure the stories reflect the diversity of the regions and movements FRIDA supports.”

Following an open call for designers, a joint proposal by Kritika Trehan and Priya Dali was selected. “We were looking for an ideal designer-illustrator duo as we envisioned the report to be a microsite from the beginning, following a #NoPDFPolicy,” Ranganathan says.

“They sent us a proposal that really fit with what we were looking for. They are young Indian designers who have experience working on gender-sensitive topics, illustrating for feminist and queer publications and spaces, so we knew they’d be able to take this on well.”

The journey matters as much as the destination

One of the most compelling aspects of the report is the way that the central theme of “journey” is expressed in the design, encouraging readers to slow down and explore. As Ranganathan says, “We wanted the audience to journey themselves as they browse through the report.”

This twining of story and design is typical of FRIDA’s artistic design approach. “We look at our annual report as an opportunity to tell the organization’s story in a single year.

“‘Journey’ emerged as a key word that described 2018 for us. Not only a physical journey but also a metaphorical one—wherein FRIDA journeyed as an organization, went through shifts in its leadership, entered a more strategic spot of shaping the next route ahead.

“Different elements and activities make up the whole journey and it was important to emphasise that, especially as we wanted to say how the journey matters as much as the final destination.”

In activist work the how is often as important as the what. In many parts of the world government departments, corporations, and NGOs pay lip service to feminist values, even as they reinforce damaging social norms, enact destructive policies, or otherwise behave in ways that further entrench inequality. FRIDA’s attention to the reality and integrity of feminist practice speaks deeply.

The journey of the report takes place in a landscape full of activity. “There’s doodling, people sitting in a circle, people forming hurdles and climbing on top of each other, a farmers’ market somewhere, a greenhouse, a picnic, people waiting at a station to board a train, bonfires, fruits. ...”

Ranganathan explains the concept behind the scene: “We collectively brainstormed visuals. A key mantra that kept us going was ‘It takes a village’ to remind us how a year’s journey has contributions from so many different people at different stages. That is how the visual look was conceptualized, incorporating multiple visual imagery, different people doing a wide variety of activities.”

This acknowledgement that social change is slow, difficult work that requires many hands and many tools is a refreshing change from many slick NGO fundraising narratives that promise an end to poverty for the price of a cup of coffee.

Many of the activities represented may not seem, at first, to be connected to social change work. But as author and facilitator Adrienne Maree Brown says, “I don’t think that everyone has to be doing 100% radical work for the world to change. I do think that everyone needs to become mindful of themselves as part of interconnected systems that depend on each other for quality of life and survival.” Activism does not take place in a vacuum, but in a community, and the illustration reinforces the report’s theme of collective action and the collective care that sustains it.

Making space for reflection

“Designing is a lengthy and complicated process! You can work with a said deadline, but things tend to get delayed. There were a lot of back and forths. When things are as participatory, making sure everyone gets a first look and offers their honest feedback, it can also push launch dates.”

Ranganathan’s answer to my question about the practical challenges of creating the report certainly recalled some lengthy publications projects of my own and offers a valuable reminder that thoughtful collaboration and a tight turnaround don’t tend to fit together.

Some design challenges, however, can only be resolved by drawing on many different viewpoints, and making space in the schedule for discussion. “We wanted everyone to see themselves somewhere in the report, and that's not easy to accomplish in a given timeframe. We did a lot of self-reflection on the kind of colors we use to depict the figures, the array of gender and sexual identity they would display in their actions and mannerisms, and a good variety of dressing style and sense.

“At the end of the day,” Ranganathan concludes, “the content we produce needed to strive for political correctness and universal resonance over strict adherence to deadlines and launch push.” This reveals an enviable strategic clarity; for FRIDA, respectfully representing a truly diverse community was a greater priority than speed of delivery. The journey is as important as the destination.

Sharing a vision of a feminist future

The design process behind Measuring The Sky also offered the team “a canvas for us to think of what a feminist village would look like.”

Feminism is a global movement that draws great strength and energy from its plurality. But because of this plurality, and the challenge of representing the interests of half of the world’s population, it can be difficult to imagine our feminist futures. The structures we are trying to change and replace are often painfully evident. But what are we trying to build? What does the world look like after kyriarchy?

Imagining is activist work. Adrienne Maree Brown again: “We have to be able to feel what it is we’re longing for. We have to be able to feel the light in order to keep going—in order to know that we’re getting somewhere.”

Through its artistic design, Measuring The Sky offers a vision of a feminist future, and underpins it with stories from the feminist present through real life, evidence-based examples of the extraordinary work that FRIDA funds. As Ranganathan explains, FRIDA’s annual report isn’t just another corporate publication. “It is also our single biggest evidence of what young feminist organizing can do when given the right amount of support at the right time.”

What first struck me about Measuring The Sky was its beauty, a quality not traditionally associated with annual reports. What I find most impressive now is the harmony of concept, message, values, and process, and how thoughtfully this is expressed through the visual design. Measuring The Sky requires the reader to pause, explore, and reflect. It invites us to consider our part in the journey to a feminist future, and to recognize those who are leading the way.

Tags: Annual reports