Run! Hide! Time to Get Out The Annual Report!

You can hear the sigh of relief on July 1 each year as the Development Office closes its fiscal year. You can also hear the jubilation if they made (or better yet, exceeded) their goals for annual giving. Yay, Team!

As the summer moves on, the office is tallying, accounting, and cross-checking making sure the numbers are right in preparation for closing the books on the year and getting ready for the annual report. The dreaded annual report... 

There's a lot of pressure on the Development Office to get it right. Numbers don't lie and omitting a donor or spelling their name wrong in a print publication can have big consequences for the school's future fundraising. Their office has good reason to sweat it out. 

The Marketing Office has a big stake in the game as well. Everyone wants the report to be perfect and to do what it's supposed to do: thank, celebrate and motivate.

So what do we know about this major project and how can we make it better in getting the report read, motivating your generous donors to give again, and encouraging them give more?



I see it all: Report of Gifts/Giving, Annual Report, Annual Report of Gifts, Donor Recognition, President’s Report, Philanthropy Report, Donor Impact Report, Roll of Donors, Roll of Benefactors, and more.

The most common titles are Annual Report and Report of Gifts, and I think there’s a distinction between the two. A Report of Gifts is more “just the facts, ma’am” and lists the donors to the fund. An Annual Report has donor lists, but also more detailed financials and a “year in review” aspect to it that includes photos, sidebars and features of the highlights of the last year.

Some of the more creative titles I’ve seen include:

  • Report of Appreciation (Holderness, Pomfret)

  • Impact of Giving (Geelong Grammar School)

  • The Impact of Yes (Gladwyne Montessori)

  • Fueling the Mission — Community Generosity and Volunteerism (Concord Academy)



For development offices that are on top of things, the best time to send out the report is at the same time the first appeal goes out. This is often October.

The theory behind this dual timing is that the community will be enthused seeing the report and learning how much support was garnered last year, how impactful it was, who supported the school among their friends, photos of their kids and/or themselves, etc. All of these things can motivate them to give their gift now. More donations earlier in the school year equals less work for the Development Office later in the year. 

For development offices that, for whatever reason, can’t get their numbers and donor roles firmed up by the fall, the report will have to go out when it’s ready. This might not be until the first quarter of the following year.

If the report isn't going to be ready until the second quarter of the following year, I suggest you reconsider sending it out. At this late date, your audience may be confused about which year you’re reporting on (the current year or 18 months ago) and, frankly, it doesn’t present the school’s financial stewardship in the best light being so late to the party.

An alternative if you find yourself in this situation is to put the financials up on the website with a donor list and send out a postcard telling folks where to find it. 

To maintain donors' privacy, give them a password to those pages on your postcard like Taft does

Sidebar: Schools differ on their willingness to publish donor lists online for privacy concerns. This includes PDFs of the entire report. Your school should establish its own policy, and, if you do display donors publicly, you should allow donors to opt out of the listing, if they choose, when making their donation.



Most reports contain the following:

  • Letter from the Head of School and (optional) Board Chair (Does anyone read these?)

  • Charts and/or statements of donors by

    • Total numbers

    • Societies (how much and many in pre-designated societies)

    • Donors broken down by levels of giving, relationship to school, class, faculty, corporations, matching gifts, capital gifts, endowment, gifts in kind, bequests, named funds, planned giving, in memory of, in honor of, reunion, etc.

  • Retrospective on gala, golf outing, and other fundraisers

  • Board of Trustees

  • Development staff

  • Volunteer list

To make this fairly dry content more compelling, include stories about the school's accomplishments, traditions and people.

The Hockaday School 2016 – 2017 Annual Report of Gifts profile

Fairfield Prep Annual Report 2016-17 College Matriculations

Rodeph Sholom School Annual Report 2016-2017 Year in Review

The Baldwin School 2016-17 Report of Gifts Year in Review

Every report should show where the money from the year went, who it went to, and what kind of impact it will have on the community. This report from George School does this perfectly.

George School Annual Report 2015-16 Impact Statements



We’re all highly aware of the growing demise of print. We should also be cognizant of our audiences’ preferred delivery method for communications from our schools.

We’re all also highly aware of the cost of printing and mailing large reports — money perhaps better spent on the students or some effort that benefits the school.

That said, there is still a segment of your audience who probably prefers print — members of your "senior" community. I count myself in this group at age 66, having graduated high school in 1970. I don’t like reading long documents online and prefer to hold something in my hand. Most of my peers feel the same. Development offices want to keep my age group happy and connected because, in theory, we're the ones with the capacity to become major donors and candidates for bequests. 

I would like to suggest a solution to this challenge.

  • Design the report as a printed piece, but print and mail only to classes who have graduated earlier than [pick a year…maybe 1980?].

  • Create a microsite for the report that truly lays out the content for web viewing in an interesting, perhaps interactive, design. Include a separate search box so folks can quickly find their name and names of friends. (I wish I could find an example of this, but so far, no go. Please email me if you have one and I'll share it in the comments below.)

  • Mail a postcard and send out e-news to drive the “younger” audience to this site.

  • Offer the option to mail anyone the printed version with a call to action on both the microsite and the postcard. (Has anyone done this "request a hard copy" option? Please email me and let me know what you discovered.)



The jury is out on this one.

Two magazines that incorporate the annual report.

The Pros

  • Some (some) savings in mailing one piece vs. two

  • Delivery of one piece to your audience all at once instead of two pieces, often close together, which can look disorganized or poorly planned

  • Taking advantage of a captive audience who wants to read the magazine and will be forced to at least flip through the report, and vice versa

The Cons

  • Mixing the magazine which is friend-raising with the report which is fund-raising. (This is the “don’t have your hand out every time you communicate” camp.)

  • Pressure for teams to get both documents out at once

Ultimately, each school needs to decide what's right for them. Experiment one year and track results.


Donor Envelope or Give Online

Again, this is a generational thing, and the donor envelope will go by the wayside as soon as the Boomers are no longer with us. In another decade, folks won't even own a checkbook. For now, I suggest a donor envelope only to the older alums and friends.



A well conceived cover from Miami Country Day school that bridges current students and a larger world view on philanthropy.

Let's face it: "I can't wait to dig in and read 40 pages of people's names," said no one ever. So let's try to make the cover as compelling as possible and invite your readers in. Photos of students are compelling for many, especially your current parents, faculty and staff, but might not resonate as much with the widest audience. When in doubt, put a gorgeous (preferably professionally shot) image of an iconic place or feature of campus that spans the generations. This could be your school's front door, main foyer, chapel, overhead of campus, iconic building, piece of stained glass, gargoyle, gathering spot under tree, a campus tree itself, blurred effects of feet rushing by a floor mosaic, etc.

These timeless kinds of shots are what you're going to want your professional photographer to take next time on campus. They're extremely useful, especially for development. (Need a great photographer? Check out our Photographer Resource Guide.)

No great shots? Use words instead. (See samples below.)



  • If you know your audience is older folks, don't design your lists reversed on black, even if it does look cool and black is one of your school colors. It's murder on the eyes.

  • Your donor lists can be a smaller point size than the body text because folks can skim them, there's a lot of white space, and alpha order helps to find names quickly.

  • I think infographics are starting to reach their tipping point as far as freshness is concerned. Think of new and different ways of designing that information that isn't as cookie cutter (such as the two "Year in Review" examples above).

Here's hoping you met or exceeded your goal last year and will do the same this year...and you'll develop a stunning report to share the good news and gather more gifts.

Below are some examples of great ideas and/or good design to inspire your next report. (What's it called again?)

You can find all of the reports referenced below and boatloads more on InspirED's Pinterest Development board.



Gilmour Academy Year In Review Timeline

Concord Academy Endowment Timeline

Holderness Student Voices

Brewster Academy Parent Survey Results

Brewster Academy Success Stats

Cover Design Featuring Photos

Webb Cover Design

St. Joseph's Prep Cover Design

Cover Design Featuring Words

Kingsley Montessori Cover

Riverdale Cover

Ashley Hall Interior Spread

Westridge School Interior Spread

Singapore American School Interior Spread

Marymount Los Angeles Back Cover


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