January 20, 2021

Tool: Making the Case for New Programs and Capital Projects with the Case Statement Canvas

Advising Leaders

By Elliot Felix

How Can you Best Make the Case for New Programs and Capital Projects

With decreased state and federal support, declining enrollment, and decreased revenues from auxiliaries like dorms, dining, and parking, funding for new programs and capital projects is limited. At the same time, dealing with a public health crisis, a financial crisis, a racial justice crisis, and a climate crisis has highlighted long-term needs that need action today to ensure your social, economic, and environmental sustainability. Redesigning academic programs, student services, technology, and facilities for equitable student success can’t wait. Neither can projects that differentiate your college or university’s student experience or projects that create societal impact by solving large complex problems from cancer to climate change.

How can academic leaders best make the case for programs, initiatives, and capital projects to their audience, whether a foundation, a government, a partner, or other stakeholders?

brightspot reflected on our experience helping colleges and universities define and communicate their ideas and, based on this, we developed a simple tool for leaders in academic affairs, student affairs, facilities, technology, and advancement to get on the same page, literally, as they think through and make the case for a new programmatic and/or capital project. It is informed by a design thinking mindset by being human-centered to focus on solving problems for people, by learning through iteration by testing and refining ideas, and by telling stories that communicate impact.

Case Statement Canvas Workshop

What is the Case Statement Canvas?

The Case Statement Canvas is an interactive worksheet for institutions to make the case to support capital improvements and/or programs. For each audience, you can complete a Canvas to identify needs, offerings, impacts, support needed, the reasons why you are uniquely qualified to receive support, and how you’ll test and illustrate your ideas. It can be filled out by an individual or department or used collaboratively across departments – and walk the talk of design thinking by refining your Canvas over time as you learn from each pitch and hone your case. Using the information on the Canvas, you can then write a clear, concise, and compelling case statement for new space, technology, services, and staffing.


Fill out the form below to download your copy of the Canvas


What are the Components of the Case Statement Canvas?

The Case Statement Canvas is organized into three sections. The first section sets the context within the organization/department mission, the vision for the project, and the audience for the case you are making as well as their goals for you to align with. (Note that you may need to make a different case for different audiences and so you’d make different Canvases for each). The second section makes the case by identifying the five (or more) components of the project you are proposing, each of which is an “offering” that benefits your users in some way. Each offering then becomes a row to be fleshed out considering its users, benefits, and differentiators; the support needed; how it will be prototyped/tested; and how it will be illustrated/communicated. The third section communicates the impact of these offerings through imagined stories of the future project in use.

While these imagined stories of the project in use may seem like fluff, they can often be the most critical and compelling part of the case; we wrote about a dozen such 2-3 sentence stories for a project which secured $150M in financial support.

Now that you are oriented to the organization of the Case Statement Canvas, let’s use an example to walk through what’s in the Canvas and how you might fill it out, one grounded in reality by blending a few of our projects including a new integrated advising center at UVA, a new digital one-stop-shop student portal at Portland State University, and a social innovation studio at the University of Rochester

  • Organizational Mission: The mission should describe the fundamental purpose of your institution, organization, or department – why it exists. In this case, the mission is to “Advance knowledge and student success through engaged learning, impactful research, and inclusive communities.”
  • Project Vision: The vision should be the ideal future state of the institution, organization, or department, what success looks like when you are optimally delivering on your mission. It serves as a kind of “North Star” to guide the projects and make decisions along the way. In this case, the vision statement is to create a “one-stop-shop for advising that brings together seamless academic, career, and personal support to enable student success”
  • Audience: The audience is who you are making the case to in order to garner their support, which could be financial, political, time, advice or other forms. Crucially, this is more than listing the audience; it’s identifying their goals so you can show how your project aligns with them and advances their goals. In our example, we imagine a state Board of Education focused on “increasing graduation rates” and “increasing career placement rates.”
  • Offerings: The offerings are the components of your project. Each offering serves as a row of the Canvas. (Note that the Canvas has room for five offerings; if there are more, a second sheet can be used). In the case of the one-stop-shop advising center project, the offering rows are an “integrated service point” to assist and/or direct students, “shared consultation spaces” for different providers to meet with and advise students, “workshop and event spaces” to support programming, “CRM systems and dashboards” for service providers to share data and see the center’s usage, satisfaction, impact at-a-glance, and a chatbot to help assist and/or direct students in a scalable way.
  • Users and Needs: The users and needs column describes who the offering is for and what their needs are. (Hint: if an offering isn’t tied to your user or staff needs, you should rethink it). In this case, the needs range from assistance navigating different student services, private conversations about sensitive topics, skill-based workshops, staff collaboration and coordination across departments/units, and the need to provide service at scale.
  • Game Changer: The game changer column is the concrete way each offering will provide transformational benefits and do more than just be a “little bit better” solution. In this case, the game changing benefits include making support more visible and accessible (and less stigmatized as a result), creating safe spaces for sensitive conversations, building and showcasing skills, a coordinated care network of service providers, and responsive 24/7 student services.
  • Support: The support column identifies what support is needed from the audience and other partners, which could range from time, funding, space, political support, advice, or other forms. In this case, the support needed includes allocating space within a library for the advising center, capital funds for the building the project, and operational funds for running the center including its systems and staffing.
  • Differentiators: The differentiators column communicates how this project will be different from those at peer institutions, from related offerings at the same institution, or both as a way to answer the question “Why this project?” (versus another one). In this example, the differentiators range from leapfrogging peers, cost-effective space use, visibility to create accessibility and impact, and operational effectiveness through collaboration.
  • Prototypes: The prototypes column communicates how you’ll test the different aspects of the project to refine your ideas and build momentum. Prototypes can range in fidelity to the idea from a storyboard or skit to simulate how something will work to a mock-up that illustrates what it might look like to a pop-up that adds some functionality to a temporary mock-up to a functioning prototype in a pilot project. In this example, pop-up office hours, programming within existing spaces, and bootstrapped technology are all used for testing.
  • Illustrations: The illustrations column identifies how you’ll communicate the idea, and this can build on the other aspects. These can range from rough sketches to images of precedents for inspirational projects to architectural drawings to photo-realistic renderings to photos of a skit, mock-up, or pop-up from your prototyping activities. In the example, we imagine the use of a range of mediums including precedent images, sketches, a future programming calendar to imagine the center in use, and mock-ups of the dashboard and chatbot.
  • Stories: Finally, imagined stories of the project and its component offerings help you communicate the impact in concise, concrete, and compelling ways. Like any story, these should have a character, a context, and a plot that includes the activities of the character(s) with some conflict/problem and some resolution/solution. In the example, we imagine different stories of students who come to the library for one purpose and discover other resources, benefit from enhanced coordination among staff, and use technology seamlessly.

How to Get Started

Once you download the Canvas, you might be wondering how to get started. So, we’ve got some suggestions on this.

  1. If you don’t have baseline qualitative and quantitative data on what your needs are, start there so you can use that to figure out where to focus your efforts.
  2. Use the Canvas to gently “force” collaboration across groups, keeping in mind that as with many planning activities, the act of getting people together to discuss the questions and work on your Canvas is likely as valuable as the completed Canvas you’ll have as a result. So, be sure to capitalize on that process to build (or repair) relationships and create momentum.
  3. Look for some quick wins that help you test your ideas and build momentum – it could be as simple as a pop-up service point of “office hours” to meet faculty where they are. These prototypes are critical to changing the conversation with a funder from: “We’ve got this (unproven) idea and would like your support” to “Look at what we’ve already accomplished… Imagine what we could do with your support!”

In the end, remember that the mindset, skills, and tools of design thinking are critical to making the case. The more you can center on people’s needs, improve your ideas through iteration, and communicate your impact through compelling stories, the better off you will be.

Good luck as you move ahead and please get in touch if you need a hand – we’d love to help you make the case and get results!