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Keeping it realistic

06 December 2013

A column of yours earlier this year suggested that those churches with bigger projects might need to tackle them in phases in order to get the money (25 January). How can we make realistic financial plans about what we might achieve?

I ALWAYS hope that churches with ambitious projects for their buildings (and their outreach) have based their plans on something more than a twinkle in someone's eye.

The earliest stages of looking at a project may include wanting to do something inspiring, far-reaching - even life-changing. But as soon as the idea begins to crystallise it must be based on three foundational elements: what is needed and wanted locally; what is architecturally feasible and reasonable; and what is realistically affordable. Each of these elements will put substance and limitations on where the church can go with its dream.

It is common for the architectural element to get a great deal of early attention; the assessment of local need and demand among the church and its neighbours is often less well explored and reported. Very few churches make good assessments of what is affordable. Ideally, these three legs of your new stool should be prepared simultaneously.

Your bright idea should be tested among people in the area, among those who will use the building in its new form. Do they want and need the change? Early conversations with your architect will give some clear directions to architectural planning. But nothing can be decided until the financial realities are explored.

Often, architects are commissioned to take plans forward to the point of faculty, before the local audit of need and demand (in the Statement of Need) is prepared. And, often, because it seems to be such an unquantifiable item, both may go forward without knowing what can be afforded. There is no point going to the expense of preparing faculty and tender documents for a project for which you may not be able raise the funds.

To assess the realism of raising funds for the project, here are a few ideas. Visit other churches that have undertaken similar work, and find out how much they spent, and how they raised the money. Explore the potential sources of funds: trusts, landfill funds, local giving, and the Lottery, and find out how much each might contribute.

In my experience, trusts - albeit as few as one in ten of those you approach - may contribute anything from £500 to several thousand pounds to a project that they consider financially sound and achievable. The Landfill Communities Fund may contribute in the tens of thousands if you fit its target aims, and are in its target areas.

"Local contributors" means, on the whole, those living in your neighbourhood, and you can assess how much local people like to give; congregation members of long standing are likely to be the most generous local donors. Lottery contributions may be large for Repair Projects, but for "community" facilities are relatively modest.

Unless there is some exceptional source of funds in your area, into which you know you can tap, the larger projects may need to be broken into smaller phases so that each may be set an achievable budget. Some trusts and donors will be happy to donate a second time to a second phase of works.

To do this, any church planning works that seem to be significant could do with having a quantity surveyor on the team early in the planning. This way, the breakdown of phases can be budgeted without the expense of going out to tender each time.

Someone is sure to say that there is a cost saving in doing all the work at the same time, but it is better for the project to be achievable financially than to plan for an funding scenario that is ultimately not realistic.

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