“Everything is connected…no one thing can change by itself.” Paul Hawken, entrepreneur

The nation’s clergy and congregations might be dismayed or exhilarated by what foundation leaders had to say at a recent meeting convened by the Alban Institute. The meeting grew out of the Faith and Money Project, a three-year effort funded by Lilly Endowment Inc., that was designed to explore the chasm between faith and money in American society.

The project has revealed that faith-based foundations find it difficult to work with congregations, considering them uninformed about the mission of foundations, lacking in vision, unwilling to account for spending or results, and unable to sustain programs after funding runs out. All of these deficiencies relate to key criteria that must be met if funding is to be provided. The Alban Institute therefore convened a meeting of 11 foundation executives in March 2002 to identify what is working and what isn’t in the grant-making process, to determine what other issues might be having an impact on the relationship between congregations and faith-based endowments, and to open a new a dialogue between the two groups.

Conversion Foundations
The leaders who participated in this meeting all head “conversion foundations,” created through the sale of faith-owned hospitals or health plans. The combined assets of the 11 organizations these leaders represent are approximately $1 billion, and there are about 90 other such foundations nationwide. These faith-based endowments, many of which are headed by individuals from religious life, have a desire and willingness to support congregational efforts that are in line with their own goals. Nevertheless, many of their executives are becoming increasingly frustrated in working with congregations.

Recognizing the Foundation’s Mission
One of the core problems foundation executives say they face is that many congregations do not understand the foundation’s mission, viewing its role as a charitable one and often seeing themselves as entitled recipients. But, the executives say, foundations do not exist to sustain congregations, nor to finance their individual missions. Instead, they look to congregations to help them forward their own goals, which may be as focused as reducing teen pregnancy in the local community or as far-reaching as wiping out hunger worldwide. The largest grants go to organizations that are prepared to take on an aspect of the foundation’s mission.

Foundations regularly solicit grant applications for programs addressing their targeted issues—often specifically requesting such applications from congregations—but these requests are often met with silence. This has led to the impression that congregations do not have the interest, resources, or business know-how to seek out such grant funding and put it to work. Jerry Paul, president and chief executive officer of the Deaconess Foundation, describes a two-year period during which foundation representatives met with local clergy to invite them to submit grant proposals for amounts ranging from $10,000 to $100,000, but received virtually no applications. Other foundation executives report similar experiences. Given this lack of response, foundations find it difficult to view the relationship between themselves and congregations as a symbiotic one.

Foundations responsible for their own fundraising need to provide potential donors with evidence of the difference they are making. Therefore, not only are successful projects crucial, so also are the stories, facts, and figures associated with them. According to foundation heads, however, congregations have a poor track record when it comes to reporting this information. Without this evidence, people have less motivation to give to the organization.

Congregational Challenges
Focus is also a problem. Congregations often demonstrate what one foundation executive calls “global empathy”—a concern for all the socially disenfranchised of the world. But without a distinct focus for their efforts, congregations can have little impact, and consequently, neither can the foundations.

In some cases, resources, rather than lack of interest or initiative, is at issue. While in the last six years there has been a resurgence of interest in social issues, many congregations simply do not have the capacity to take them on, a fact recognized by foundation representatives. Recent research has shown that the budget and participation levels of many congregations leave them struggling for their own survival. These congregations sometimes seek support from faith-based foundations, but foundation executives say providing such support is not their primary function. “One of our main concerns is that the endowment not dissipate into normal church coffers that should find funding elsewhere,” says Byron Harrell, president of Baptist Community Ministries.

Many foundations find that proposed projects are often extremely limited in impact or duplicative of other organizations’ efforts. An example would be free blood pressure screening with no follow-up other than providing test results.

Sometimes congregations cannot sustain programs once funding runs out, leaving communities with a gaping hole where helpful services once existed. Foundations are reluctant to simply re-fund projects because their mission is to seed projects that can develop a life of their own, not provide ongoing support. Sally Duffy, vice president of the SC Ministry Foundation, says that foundations and congregations alike need to sustain their resources for future generations through effective programming.

Many and Interconnected Causes
The roots of these and other difficulties, foundation leaders acknowledge, are many and interconnected. The landscape of American religious life has changed dramatically in the last 40 years. Pastors are now underpaid and unfamiliar with the resources that might assist them in fulfilling their roles, many congregations are shrinking and on the verge of collapse, social engagement by private organizations has declined, and expectations that the government will assume socially responsible roles have increased. It is within this complex set of realities that congregations are attempting to survive and make a difference and within which foundations are trying to engage congregations in their own missions—no small task for either.

“We are in an environment that is throwing all of our roles up in the air,” says John Wimmer, director of the Alban Institute’s Indianapolis Center for Congregations. “Not one institution has a cut-and-dried mission; not one of us has a clear job description. Old ways of being and leading congregations are going to have to be set aside. The world of philanthropy is also changing. Foundations are thinking about offering basic support to existing organizations because they see program after program ending up without results.” At the same time, he says, “there is tremendous opportunity to engage this world in a different way, to be more faithful, to break out of institutional boxes, and when I look around the country for people to engage this, I think the foundations are in a pivotal place.”

Foundational Failings
Foundation executives recognize that they are in part responsible for the divide between themselves and congregations, admitting that many foundations have what one executive calls “foundation disease,” a tendency to view congregations as the servants of the foundation rather than as essential partners. They also acknowledge that the impact of social ministries is not always immediately noticeable, let alone measurable, and that a focus on efficiency may fail to appreciate the ministerial aspects of the congregation’s work. They have begun to ask themselves questions like, “Have we reduced congregations to socia
l service agencies?” “Have we stripped away the theological grounding that causes them to be participating in these efforts in the first place?”

Foundations are realizing that they may be speaking a language that congregations don’t understand and trying to teach them that language rather than meeting them in what one meeting participant referred to as the “spaces in between.” They are asking themselves, “Are we seeking to find a common vision that comes from God?”

Despite the difficulties they have experienced in working with congregations, foundations continue to want to partner with congregations in addressing health and social issues, and they are working to find ways to make these partnerships more satisfying and effective for both parties. While none can offer a foolproof template for others to use in their work with congregations, some have discovered approaches that appear to be working.

Glimmers of Hope
The SC Ministry Foundation, for instance, has had success at creating partnerships with nonprofit and faith-based organizations. “We put a lot of emphasis on building relationship,” says Duffy. “We share our expectations and invite congregations to do the same and work closely with them to identify mission compatibility. We talk about how we can best join forces to serve the people we want to benefit. It is the theological vision that engages the other party,” she says. “It is a point of contact, a shared learning.” The foundation has also begun building capacity in organizations by taking on an educational role, such as providing workshops on grant-writing, which several other foundation executives report they are doing as well.

The Lutheran Charities Foundation, as well as Alban Institute consultants working with congregations seeking foundation funding, are encouraging congregations to form alliances with each other and with other types of organizations to build the capacity they need to qualify for the funding they want. Some foundations are having success with matching grants, which they say builds commitment. Others are providing short-term grants and giving preference to outreach projects over internal congregational initiatives. The United Methodist Health Ministry Fund is trying a “step-down” model that reduces funding in the second and third years of a three-year grant to encourage congregations to take the steps necessary to make their programs self-sustaining.

A deep inquiry into the foundation’s mission has led the Texas Methodist Foundation to its approach to working with congregations, says the foundation’s president, Tom Locke. “The Texas Methodist Foundation had historically been a provider of financial services,” Locke says. “A couple of years ago we came to the recognition that there was something larger for us to do. Clergy were coming to us, asking for seminars on issues like how to manage multiple staff, and within our culture of ‘what can we give?’ as opposed to ‘what are we going to get?’ this became the starting point for a new area of service. We also began to look within ourselves to discover our core values and our core purpose and our own servanthood—the competence and integrity to do what we say we will do, to see what needs to be done and to have the courage to do something about it, as we empower the Church in accomplishing her God-given missions.” In its work with congregations, the foundation encourages them to undertake a similar inquiry, and to discover their own core values and purpose, and in doing so, to find their ultimate reason for being. “What we have found,” Locke says, “is that the more we give the more we find ourselves receiving.”

The Indianapolis Center for Congregations is in itself an experiment in finding ways to help congregations find the resources they need to survive and thrive. The Center’s work begins, explains John Wimmer, with the congregation’s goals and the challenges it faces in accomplishing them. “This has the power of recognizing congregational life—the integrity of the congregation’s purpose and mission,” he says.

Among the Center’s core activities are educational programs, one-on-one “resource consulting” to assist congregations in finding the resources that match their needs, and grant-making, which has grown out of the Center’s educational and consulting work. The Center now provides matching grants of up to $7,500 and has launched a second grant-making program addressing congregations’ computer technology and information needs, which became apparent through the Center’s conversations with them. Unable to find a resource that could address this need, the Center created an educational program that includes on-site consultations to assist congregations in applying what they are learning. “We have found that the learning and excitement tend to dissipate without support,” says Wimmer. The Center has also found that there is a capacity-building and decision-making process that becomes strengthened by engaging in the grant-making process. “The secondary learning is stunning,” Wimmer says.

A Time of Changing Identities
During this time of shifting roles, identities, and relationships, foundations are grappling with a number of questions: What is the nature of foundations’ obligation to the local church and the church in general? What do we believe about social justice? How do we encourage nonprofit organizations providing duplicative efforts to come together with a common infrastructure? Is the congregation the right place to do social outreach or should other organizations be created to respond to those needs? What is a foundation’s responsibility to support capacity building in a congregation seeking grant funding? Have we forgotten our own sense of ministry?

There are no easy answers to these troubling questions and no quick ways to construct bridges across the chasm that currently exists between foundations and congregations—only a commitment to try to do so and a hope that, with a concerted effort by both parties and a meeting in the spaces in between, that a God-inspired vision can be recognized and fulfilled.

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