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Utilizing Architects to Aid in Construction Funding

Five ways these firms can help in cultivating donors and soliciting gifts
University Business, Oct 2010

For many campus building projects, the period following schematic design is critical to the project's future. With the proposed design illustrating the building's significant forms, program, functional relationships and scale, the project enters the fundraising phase. Design work on higher education cultural projects—such as museums, studio-arts buildings, performance halls and affiliated classrooms, as well as sports facilities, alumni centers, and science buildings—often pauses following schematic design so that university leaders can raise funds for construction.

The juncture between schematic design, design development, construction documents, and construction, during which intensive fundraising occurs, can be a few months to a year or two. Yet designers are hardly idle during this time. Architects are increasingly participating in client universities' fundraising.

HGA Architects and Engineers provides significant assistance during this financial phase, in which donor cultivation and gift solicitations are essential to the project's continuation. We've developed five key services for clients that assist in and enhance fundraising efforts.

Visual and graphic images convey the overall scope, conceptual design, scale, and program of the project on its site. Providing clients with such visuals in a variety of media is a common architectural firm service. These visuals range from computer-generated images, 3-D models and animations to stills and renderings on paper. Clients use them in donor-cultivation videos and to generate interest in the project online. They also incorporate these graphics into glossy booklets, brochures, and other print material often created by the architectural firm.

The most popular visual is a real, physical project model. Even in this era of computer-generated walkthroughs and flyovers, which are spectacular animations, people still respond readily to physical models. HGA builds models as part of the schematic. Models can entice a donor to take the critical next step in substantially increasing their support.

Even in this era of computer-generated walkthroughs and flyovers, people respond readily to physical models.

Case in point: One model was of a simple structure that contained all of the program elements the client required. Another model included all of the program spaces but also reflected the spirit of the art form that would be housed in the building. The client approved both designs, but couldn't afford the more arresting, spirited design. During a meeting with a prominent philanthropist, however, the client showed the donor both models. The donor quickly and excitedly embraced the second option, and upped the financial gift to cover the cost of the more iconic design.

For a separate fee, architects can produce higher-end models - finely crafted works of sculpture constructed of balsa wood, often with color and finishes.

HGA can fabricate a case in which the model sits, like a fine gem in a jewel box. Clients can carry these suitcase models with them to town hall or community gatherings, and to meetings with state legislators, donors, or a board of regents. These models assure a dramatic presentation and the attention of the audience.

Architects can also serve as coaches on the key talking points for presentations and written material. These points are essential in developing a dramatic, compelling narrative explaining the need for the project, its history, signature design elements, and unique program aspects. We can help clients understand a project and its architecture on a deeper level so that they can more readily engage and excite donors.

Today's selling points for new or renovated projects may well include flexibility (in how spaces can be maximized by multiple users); adaptability (in how spaces can be easily reconfigured to support different functions); and the seamless incorporation of wireless technologies to support learning.

Sustainability is the most influential, high-impact talking point. Many clients know the incorporation of sustainable-design strategies is a necessary cost-saving measure that decreases energy use while boosting an institution's green profile. Donors as well as students are avidly embracing sustainable design.

Not all clients want to pay the fees for sustainable certification through a program like LEED, which provides a demonstrable and public outcome for sustainable-design efforts. However, such strategies as energy-efficient mechanicals and lighting, and recycled and recyclable products - automatically incorporated into many projects to abide by state laws and energy codes - can be easily augmented. Initiatives like access to public transportation, the installation of bike racks, and natural or low-irrigation landscaping can quickly add up to green certification.

With one project, after the client institution realized it was on track for LEED Silver, its leaders decided to acquire certification to help capitalize on and promote the project. Whether an institution chooses to pursue certification or not, energy data and sustainable-design initiatives can be used in a dramatic narrative when speaking to donors and others.

That narrative will excite donors about a project and engage their interest in naming opportunities. Philanthropists and corporations can attach their names to an entire building or any part its program. Many campus buildings, including sports facilities and arts or cultural centers, have high visibility in the community and thus significant donor cache.

Once a corporation or individual donor's name is attached to a stadium, theater or museum, there may well be significant public exposure through name recognition in advertisements and commercials for events at the building and attendance at those events. Architects, development directors, and advancement staff create lists of options, denoting the high-value spaces and strategizing various levels of giving. Lobbies and classrooms, concert halls, gymnasiums and locker rooms, staircases and rehearsal studios are all spaces in need of funding.

A spike in funding occurs just prior to a building's opening as a result of hard-hat tours.

Computer-generated examples of signage, plaques, colors, and lettering for a particular space, in a giver's name, can help in wooing a potential donor. Images of chairs and podiums with donor plaques can be created to demonstrate a comprehensive integration of naming opportunities. In all cases, the client determines the amount of their ask, or financial request, for a specific room or feature of a project, as well as when a mock-up might be appropriate or presumptuous. (Keep in mind: Architects must maintain confidentiality during these negotiations, until the gift is made public.

Architects can also assist with the actual presentations. HGA has completed university projects from Florida State University to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, with architects traveling to present schematic designs to boards of directors, boards of regents, state legislators, donors, campus groups, and other stakeholders.

Workshops with clients and staff investigate the ways in which the project's program can become more "lean" or streamlined. This information gathering, or "knowledge-based design," allows everyone who will work in or use the building to voice their priorities, discuss their work processes, and explore more efficient options. This practice generates staff buy-in and enthusiasm for the project, resulting in a united front with which to impress donors.

If the project's schematic design is embedded in a larger strategic master plan for a campus, architects can leverage those long-range visions to help clients acquire funds. Plans might identify: existing buildings and their renovation possibilities; potential new buildings and their implementation; additional growth and educational opportunities; and land acquisition for expansion.

Institutions can use master plans to leverage millions of dollars in public support for new building projects, as they demonstrate foresight in planning for growth and flexibility. Architects can help clients apply for facilities-related research grants by brainstorming key talking points and strategic positioning.

Once sufficient funds have been raised based on schematic design, design development and construction begin. About six months prior to project completion, the building's forms are clearly visible, and materials, colors and finishes are being installed. At this point, an architect-led hard-hat tour is an excellent way to engage stakeholders. The hard-hat tour is often the critical point at which hesitant donors may be persuaded to give. Participants who have difficulty understanding drawings or comprehending design concepts can walk through a building under construction and suddenly grasp the significance of their gift. A spike in funding often occurs prior to a building's opening as a result of these tours. Because 100 percent of naming goals are rarely secured, the tour can help them achieve those goals.

As donors experience a new building and envision its future, their level of investment can increase. They recognize the value in becoming part of the building and the experiences it offers, and thus realize the value of their patronage in helping to make the facility a reality for their community.

And the best fundraising tool is always, of course, a great design!

With a focus on the arts, Gary Reetz is a vice president and a principal at HGA Architects and Engineers ( He is based in the firm's Minneapolis office.