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Success not guaranteed

18 September 2015

We are facing a big project to upgrade the facilities in our church. Raising the money is the most daunting prospect, as all the work is new to us. Are there church fund-raising projects that fail?


YES: even with considerable experience and acquired skills and knowledge, I have experienced failures. What have I learned that may be useful? I started fund-raising in the 1990s, when, at first, there were all kinds of grants that funders were prepared to spend on churches, as well as other good causes.

Since the Millennium, there have been several innovations that have helped churches: the Listed Places of Worship Repair Grants from English Heritage; and the Heritage Lottery Fund (now only the Lottery), which took the pressure out of raising funds for repair; followed by the Grant Scheme to offset VAT on building works.

In its early days, the Big Lottery was helpful, but demand is now too great. Times of recession move the goalposts, however, especially on adapting church facilities. The recession from 2008 onwards led to many large charitable funders’ having less money to spread around; so they became more selective.

Currently, the Government’s “austerity agenda” is taking money away from many good causes that have been funded by local authorities and local charities. Many landfill operators are moving to incinerators rather than landfill; so there is a related reduction in grants for good causes.

The result of these trends has been a greatly increased demand of the remaining, diminishing sources of funds. In the competition to get funds, this climate and the context are the most telling factors. To approach fund-raising for a big project as we would have done ten years ago is probably a mistake. Adapting church buildings, especially those that are listed, is expensive, in comparison with more modest community buildings. And a funder will back the adaptation of the building that costs far less in order to make equivalent community provision.

Churches are often, as you are, unfamiliar with making the case for community-project funding (in comparison with community centres that have been run on grant funding for decades), and therefore have to learn to compete with other applicants. Most established community centres have 24/7 availability for community activities, while churches usually are available for community activities only outside of their religious functions — and most funders do not contribute to religious activity.

It is a difficult climate; but both governments and recessions move on. It takes a long time to prepare an appropriate design for adapting a church, and the Statements of Need and Significance which inform the design. So continue with the work while bearing in mind that modest rather than expansive projects are more likely to succeed.

Begin your fund-raising with local initiatives that will tie you into the community that you wish to serve and help you to become more attuned to the facilities that people in the area are asking for. At the same time, look out for opportunities for local, regional, or national funding: commercial and housing developments, regeneration initiatives, local trusts or benefactors, councils who want to save money by transferring services to voluntary groups, and so on.

I expect this dry patch to continue for several years. The climate for church-repair grants is good at present; so get all those large and small repairs completed as you prepare the decks for upgraded facilities.

Send issues and questions to maggiedurran@virginmedia.com.

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