by Jay Connolly
Whether for higher ed, private secondary schools, or cultural nonprofits such as museums and theaters, it is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of your institution’s physical structure. In the education sphere, most leaders understand that, even more so than your school’s academic reputation, website, sports teams, marketing materials, or tour guides, the critical “X-factor” in admissions decisions is the “vibe” potential students get while walking through your facilities. Students and parents are picturing life on campus as they stroll through, so presenting enticing facilities is not just a maintenance issue; it is an admissions issue.
Many schools attempt to address facilities needs via capital campaigns. The first step often involves hiring a fundraising consultant to gauge how much money your institution is capable of raising, and we do not purport to be experts in the realm of nonprofit fundraising. That said, we have worked on enough campus buildings over our 140-year history to know that one big key to success in capital campaigns emphasizing building and infrastructure additions or upgrades happens in the pre-construction planning and design phase. Specifically, to attract significant giving from alumni and other donors, it is imperative to budget for a “wow” factor in the planning and design phase.
Even if your most pressing need is a campus-wide plumbing or electrical upgrade, it is generally understood that it is easier to collect donations with the promise of facilities that your supporters are truly excited about – say, a new theater, gym amenities, or a cutting-edge makerspace – than to solicit support for more mundane infrastructure and maintenance needs. With this in mind, smart educational leaders will connect with a planning, design, and construction management firm early in the process to strategize around a package that can accomplish all key goals by focusing on a signature project that will motivate donors while also building in room to take on those less-alluring (but perhaps even more necessary) behind-the-scenes campus upgrades. Doing so can set your educational institution up for capital project fundraising success.
The same holds true for nonprofit cultural institutions such as museums and theaters. Your donor base is not entirely different from those students surveying a campus; like most of us, they want to be associated with a healthy, vibrant organization, and beyond the infrastructure needs one might want or need to address, blueprints of bold plans act as a signal to your supporters that you are engaged in a continual march of progress – one which they can propel forward. Planning for physical plant improvements is thus a time to dream big, and maybe even to embrace some degree of Oscar Wilde’s sentiment that “nothing succeeds like excess.”
Of course, while the value of beautiful new facilities is undeniable, educational and nonprofit organizations must also keep a close eye on the budget. Fortunately, not all grand plans need to break the bank, and value engineering opportunities can often be identified when consulting with a firm that tackles planning, design, and construction with a unified and holistic approach.
Jay Connolly is president of Connolly Brothers, Inc.