By Cindy McCleary
If it seems like getting funds for public projects is getting harder, it is. The increasing burdens on taxpayer dollars, primarily driven by rising health-care and public-safety costs, make projects that would have been easy to fund five years ago much more difficult.
Add to that an increasingly partisan political atmosphere, and local governments are really feeling the pinch. Politics change faster than a project can get constructed, so funding that is a sure thing this year, might not be next year.
As an architect, my role often includes coaching local government professionals through the funding process. Asking for money is scary, and because I am involved in public projects, I know how to listen, connect the dots, and build a story about need that justifies and clarifies the role of a new or renovated facility.
Beyond drawing pretty pictures, my job is about digging into operational goals, strategies, and business plans to determine how a building can become a successful tool for a community. Because story is such a big part of architecture, it's natural that architects can help managers make the public case for financial need.
Getting funding isn't an exact science, but it does have certain ingredients: the needs of a community, the goals of decisionmakers, the emotions of advocates, the hot-button topics, and the business plan of the project.
It's more of a philosophy than a formula; however, in my experience, adhering to these six steps gives a project a better chance of getting the financial support it needs.
1. Save the eye candy. Setting up a project for funding success starts early, well before renderings are developed to wow a public audience. It begins in the needs-assessment, master-planning, and pre-design stage, where people can grasp the big challenges and start to build the case for need.
The physical environment affects operations. Documenting failings in the current system helps identify the risks associated with inaction, and therefore strengthens the case for spending on facilities.
On a recent police department job, we studied the workflow of the department's evidence intake chain of custody to help justify spending to improve it. The evidence-intake area was the same space used for the removal of trash and sometimes, a place to eat lunch.
Although there was protocol in place to avoid contaminating incoming evidence, the architecture of the building was introducing the possibility of human error. In the time it took an officer to clean the space before packaging evidence, that evidence could be contaminated, introducing a huge risk.
We built an argument for funding based on the risk of losing cases due to poor workflow along the chain-of-custody path. By linking space to performance, we helped build the case for need.
Often, someone will ask, "When do we get to design?" by which they mean, "Let's see some flashy images." The truth is, before the flash, there needs to be a thorough, defensible case for need.
2. Identify naysayers and understand their pitch. Naysayers can wreak havoc on a project, especially considering the speed of social media. Ignore naysayers, and they will bury you.
Whether it's a commissioner, elected official, newspaper, political activist, or disenfranchised group, naysayers use their voice to dismantle an idea. You need to understand their pitch, include them in the process, and build their trust.
This cannot be done with emotion, but only with dialogue and facts. Often, their perception highlights a weakness in your message that you can use to strengthen your case.
A recent historic-preservation project was challenged in the past by active and organized community members who felt resentment over being left out of previous planning efforts. They didn't have financial or political leverage, but they had a voice and a good point.
The solution was to embrace their role in the project and give them a voice in deciding how the site should teach about their heritageâ€”and their contributions made the project better. By bringing them to the table, understanding the storyline, and building trust, their voice became one of support rather than disruption.
3. Build your advocates. Key to project success, advocates include anyone who has political, capital, or social leverage. Whether councilmember, fundraiser, cultural gatekeeper, chamber of commerce executive, or church leader, anyone with access to hearts, minds, energy, in-kind resources, and purse strings can be an advocate.
Building advocates is an art of inclusion and should make them feel valued for more than the resources they offer. By asking for their needs, thoughts, and opinions before their money and connections, you make them feel empowered and vested, and automatically make them a partner.
For a recent police-training facility project, two police departments were involved. We knew there was a regional need for the project, but felt that our chances for funding would increase if we had more police departments across the region invested in the cause. We needed to leverage their connections to make it happen.
In the planning process, we asked 20 agency heads from across multiple counties, "What do you need?" All 20 agencies contributed their ideas, and in the process, became supporters and advocates.
Our design responded to their needs by organizing itself in the form of five semi-independent pods, each focused on a different type of training. This enabled smaller agencies to rent spaces specific to their needs, at lower cost, while decreasing overhead for the police.
Having these advocates in place before the design allowed us to meet their needs as the project developed, making them strong advocates in our campaign for funding.
4. Build a sound, defensible business plan. While some public projects, like universities and training centers, have revenue offsets, some facilities just don't generate revenue. That doesn't mean they don't need a business plan; in fact, it means they need to work harder to justify the return on investment (ROI) of the project.
For non-revenue-generating projects, a business plan justifies why the project will save money and improve operations in the long run.
When designing a recent police-department headquarters, we studied the workflow to demonstrate how the department's obsolete building required more time for staff to perform simple tasks. Because the previous building had evolved in an ad-hoc way over decades, each officer spent an average of 17 minutes getting ready for a shift, running all around the building to check in, get into uniform, go to roll call, retrieve their weapon, get medical supplies and duty bag, and finally get into the squad car.
Next, we tested the same process using a new plan and clocked it at 12 minutes. That savings of five minutes per officer, three shifts per day, seven days per week, 365 days per year added up to an annual cost of $600,000. That allowed us to argue that the hard-side investment in facilities would have soft-side outcomes, making it a smart financial investment.
No matter the situation, a strong business plan can help a manager clarify the case for need. It's no longer just based on emotion but on a metric analysis that has a ROI.
5. Develop a clear message. Nobody knows a community's needs as intimately as the manager does, but communicating those needs in a way that connects with the audience is tough.
A clear message quickly educates an audience, which can be residents or elected officials, on the risks and challenges of a project and the outcome of the investment. But it also makes a department's or community's needs the legislature's needs. This requires managers to forget their needs for a moment and focus on the needs of the audience.
In a recent public-safety training facility project, selling the project to the legislature required us to understand and address core values. While the immediate need was for a safe and secure place to train, that message didn't resonate with the legislative audience.
The legislature figured officers could train in a rented warehouse; from experience, public-safety officials knew that would not allow officers to feel safe enough to learn effectively.
Rather than focus our messaging on the needs of the officers, we chose a message that spoke directly to the needs of legislators to fairly represent constituents. In the design process, we mapped out existing training facilities in the region, and found that they were concentrated disproportionately in one area.
By presenting this information to the legislature, the argument became more about financial equity and tax base—an idea that resonated with them.
A good message isn't about selling personal needs but about positioning the need to achieve an audience's goals. This kind of argument makes it more likely that your project becomes a priority for them.
6. Dedicate feet-on-the-ground leadership. When trying to get a project funded, the better story that can be told, the better chances of success. As architects, the deeper we can get into nuts-and-bolts operations, the better we can align the design to what is needed, and the better story we can tell to justify need. This requires a significant commitment of time and talent early in the design process.
In designing a recent revitalization of a historic site, city staff felt overwhelmed during the early stages by the scale of decisions required to successfully plan the project. It was only after dedicating a team of eight empowered leaders to give 80 percent of their time to the project that we really made progress and started making impactful decisions.
By allowing people with operational authority to get into the weeds of the project, my organization could conduct a deeper dialogue on how design could improve workflow.
Dedicating the time and attention of leaders with authority over the long-term shape of the organization results in better design. This builds into a better story and a stronger case for funding.
At the same time as health care, education, and policing are taking up a bigger slice of the funding pie, buildings are getting more expensive and the prospect of asking for money is more daunting than ever.
My message to local government managers is that by paying attention to the audience, dedicating empowered leadership to projects, and making early strategic decisions, they will have a better chance of seeing projects built.