Make your annual report unthrowawayable

For some schools, an annual report represents a frustrating, yawn-inducing, can’t-seem-to-get-it-right publication. For some, it’s literally the only major print publication their alumni and donors get each year. (For some, both of those things are true!)

From my perch, I see nothing but amazing opportunities to make them irresistible — and to make them good enough to earn the coffee table for a few days, a few weeks, or even a few months.

Here’s how.

1. Develop a brand-aligned concept with narrative movement

Too often, an annual report is a jumble of charts, graphs, letters from VIPs and a long list of donor names.

Do you need most of those things? MAYBE!

Do you also need something more than that?


Your print annual report is one of the small handful of publications you send out each year, and it’s a chance to earn space in your readers’ homes and in their minds.

It’s a way not just to show them your financial successes and stewardship (though it should do that). It should also connect those financial successes to meaning, to emotion, and to stories of your institution and its people at their best.

Find a way to tell a cohesive story about the ways you’re living out your mission in a meaningful way.

One example? This “How to make history” concept that Capstone did in partnership with Kent Place School in 2021:

The big concept: Strong financial stewardship helped the school make smart decisions during the pandemic that supported students’ education at a precarious moment. Everyone stepped up and made a difference.

2. Always remember the “you” in your report

In the most obvious ways, your annual report is about your institution: its financial health, its important accomplishments, and its most inspiring and important people.

But it is also about the readers who (presumably!) also played a role in the institution as a supporter in some way.

Whether they chipped in a few bucks to the annual fund, attended an event as an alum, or sent their child (and some serious tuition dollars) to your institution, the story you tell about your institution is also one that you should hope that your readers can see themselves in.

That can be a moment of literally seeing their name in your pages (like in those donor rolls), or it can be the emotional resonance the feel when they read your institution’s story and realize: I am proud of this institution, and their values align with mine.

You can see this idea in action in this “Because” annual report, in which Capstone partnered with the Blake School. (Click to see all of the pages.)

The story is (seemingly) all about Blake and its students and teachers and programs. Until it becomes about the readers holding the report in their hands.

Notice that this annual report concept also follows the first principle! There is literal narrative movement, since you can’t see the entire story without turning the pages.

3. Create a premium experience for your reader

Unlike magazines, where you might get two or three or four swings a year, you get ONE chance per year to make your annual report great.

While that can be daunting when you realize how many donor names you could possibly misspell or when you think about whether or not you can really make that endowment growth chart interesting, it’s also a call to think bigger about the experience you’re giving your reader.

That includes creating a beautiful cover the single most important page of your annual report. It means elevating the tactile experience for your reader by creating perfect-bound publication, testing unique print finishes, or using a silky paper that feels just a little more luxurious.

Your annual report is a major print publication. It’s difficult! But done right, it will tell your school’s story with numbers and emotion. It is more than just a publication to check off of your to-do list. You should aim to create something with a lasting impact.