Built to Last: Raising Funds and Alliances to Develop Transformational Capital Projects​

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By Tom Sebastian, Compass Health President and CEO

For decades, the communities that Compass Health serves – perched in the Northwest corner of Washington state and flanked by the Pacific Ocean and Cascade mountains – have faced increasingly complex challenges of homelessness, mental health and substance use issues. 

In response, we’ve evolved many times throughout our community behavioral health agency’s 115-year history, innovating and implementing new models of care to keep pace with our region’s changing needs. 

In 2016, we embarked on a new mission of unprecedented scale for Compass Health – and indeed, for many of our nonprofit colleagues in healthcare, especially community health: a capital project designed to enable a transformative, meaningful response to these challenges.

At the outset, we knew we had two critical pieces of the solution: a century of experience as a behavioral health innovator, and ownership of an underutilized city block in Everett, Washington – a prime location that would be cost-prohibitive in today’s market. With this in mind, we set to work finding the right synergies to transform our campus and help us deliver innovative, evidence-based care to meet community needs. 

One of the first steps in any capital project is understanding its scope and goals. Our vision ultimately manifested itself in a three-phase initiative, the Broadway Campus Redevelopment Project. The first phase includes a $26 million, 82-unit permanent supportive housing facility, and the second consists of a $50 million facility for intensive behavioral services, including 32 beds for inpatient and crisis stabilization services. And, still in early design stages, the final phase will include an approximately 60,000 square-foot-building to integrate behavioral health services with a primary healthcare clinic and pharmacy.

After nearly five years into the project, we’ve learned valuable lessons about the nuances of raising the funds and advocates for a significant project. The five key pillars that have helped drive our success are: forming a strong team, looking into the full array of public funding sources, developing strategic alliances, completing private funding prep work, and talking early and often.

Forming a Strong Team

Any successful capital project begins with a strong team. Foremost, our internal executive, clinical, fundraising development and marketing team members serve as the hub, keeping us pointed to our organizational vision and managing the subject matter experts we rely on as close partners.

For this project, we joined together with a real estate development team to help us navigate the entire process, including compliance and financing strategies.​ We also work with a lobbying and communications firm that has helped us earn a seat at the table with state lawmakers to advocate for funding.​ We collaborate with a fundraising consultant, to provide insight into the strategies and donor outreach side of our capital campaign. Finally, we work with our public relations and marketing partner to help us maximize the value and community-wide buy-in for the project through media outreach and stakeholder communications. 

Tap into a Range of Public Funding Sources

One of the most challenging parts of raising funds for a project of this scale is tapping into the full array of public resources at your disposal. 

For example, funds we’ve secured for Phase I and Phase II of the project come from a diverse list of public sources, such as New Markets Tax Credits and Low Income Housing Tax Credits at the federal level. Washington state has invested in the project through grants focused on supporting behavioral health and housing and has proposed a direct capital appropriation this year. We’re also thankful for financial support from our county housing authorities, recognizing the impact this facility will have on expanding capacity.

Cultivate Strategic Alliances

This public funding support is the result of our focus on cultivating strategic alliances and relationships with decision-makers.​

Our work with the lobbying and communications group has been crucial in helping us reinforce the importance of this project with key state and federal legislators, the governor, and other leaders who have a vested interest in supporting our project.​

In our case, we highlight that the project directly aligns with the government’s stated priorities around the future of our behavioral health system in Washington state. More recently, we’ve also emphasized the Broadway project as an economic engine and source of jobs, which can help offset the effects of the pandemic.

As an example of how this strategy can yield impactful results, we’ve been included in the Governor’s proposed budget for $14 million. Though the budget has passed through the state House and the Senate and is still awaiting final approval, this inclusion marks significant support from the state, and is an example of our team’s extended outreach and relationship building.​

These strategic alliances not only give us the chance to share more about the Compass Health story and the impact this project will have on the region, they also position our community itself on the forefront of positive change.​

Complete Private Funding Prep Work

As we work toward breaking ground on Phase II later this year, we anticipate nearly 30 percent of that facility’s budget will come from capital campaign dollars secured over the next several years – a process that achieving solid traction, even though it is not yet public. 

Conducting a capital campaign doesn’t happen overnight. Before green lighting the initiative, we spent several months working with our fundraising partner to conduct a feasibility assessment so that we could vet whether our proposed funding targets were even possible.​ 

We also used this time to engage key supporters who hold influence in our community, and approach philanthropically minded members to join a campaign cabinet – the very first stage of a long initiative to engage advocates and support ownership within our community.​

While we are still in the silent phase of our campaign, and at least year away from public announcement, we’ve used this time to solidify relationships, build project awareness with key individuals, and worked to secure large gifts from institutional and family foundations, as well as individuals.​

Talk Early and Often

Finally, one of the key pieces of advice I can impart is to talk about the project early and often.​

With the help of our PR and marketing partners, we utilize project milestones to generate ongoing awareness in the community through news articles, radio interviews, virtual town halls and other opportunities. ​

These efforts are amplified on our website, social media, and newsletters, where our internal team takes the lead at sharing construction updates and the latest images of the project​. By keeping our project top-of-mind, we ensure that the community is engaged and that local lawmakers can access the most up-to-date project information. ​

In fact, active and transparent communication also helps avoid potential criticism and pushback on a project. Sometimes change can be hard, and it’s important that everyone, from neighborhood residents and community leaders to local businesses, truly understand the value of a project so you can enlist them as allies.

While these projects are both exciting and time intensive, by employing these five steps, you and your team can be better prepped to tackle a transformational initiative.