Pastors and ministry leaders are always asking me whether grants are available to fund the work of their congregations, and this question is arising more during these difficult economic times. Congregations that are having a difficult time meeting budget with gifts from inside the congregation are increasingly looking to outside sources for help.
So, is there grant funding out there for your church? I always answer: “It depends.” Whether you can secure grants for your congregation will depend on a number of factors, including:
- how closely your mission matches the funder’s mission (the most important factor)
- the results that your programs achieve
- whether there is spiritual content in the programs you seek to get funded and how the funder feels about that
- the ability of your church to actually do what you’ve set out to do, as measured by the qualification of your staff members and volunteers and the experience the congregation has implementing these types of programs
Paying attention to what funders are looking for and preparing strong grant proposals is even more important during these difficult economic times. Most foundations and corporations have less money to give away—profits are down for many companies and foundation endowments are worth much less than they were a year ago. So, with the same number of (or more) groups competing for less grant money, responding to the issues identified here will greatly increase your chances of being funded.
Before deciding to seek grant funding, keep in mind that many grants are made by foundations and corporations that are not interested in the spiritual dimension of programs. Some funding groups are even prohibited from funding religious organizations by their own bylaws. Take corporations that make grants to community programs, for instance. Because corporations have such a wide range of stakeholders—employees, customers, stockholders, and senior executives (and often many others)—many of them resist making grants to programs with religious or spiritual content for fear of alienating one or more of these key constituencies.
Another thing to keep in mind is that foundation and corporate funders typically want to support programs that benefit the broader community, not just an exclusive group of people like the members of a particular congregation or denomination. So regular church expenses like worship, pastoral care, Sunday school, and maintenance of your sanctuary usually won’t be eligible for grant funding (exceptions to this include grant support from denominations and funders like the Lilly Foundation that focus on building the capacity of congregations and pastors).
Most foundation and corporate funders in your community probably focus on a few key issues that affect a large number of people in your geographic area. For example, funders may focus on youth development, health care, violence prevention, or the shortage of affordable housing. So your congregation may be a good candidate for grant funding if you have a vision for people and programs that are outside the four walls of your church building. Grants could help fund outreach, efforts to meet community needs, and the building of relationships with people who may not participate in your church or share your faith.
Some foundation and corporate funders like to see that a congregation has set up a separate nonprofit organization to house programs for the broader community before they consider making a grant. Frequently this structure takes the form of a congregation establishing a community development corporation (CDC) that is connected to the church in some way but serves a broader audience than just the congregation. A church-based CDC might develop affordable housing, offer youth programs, conduct economic development activities, and have a health clinic on-site (for example). Establishing a separate nonprofit has a number of benefits, including the fact that funders may see your church as more invested in the community and focused on serving people outside of your own congregation. My first book, Starting a Nonprofit at Your Church, outlines the steps involved in forming a church-based nonprofit.
Funders also like to support organizations that have clear program results. Every grant proposal you write will require you to state the outcomes (results) of your programs and how you will measure those results. Many congregations find this challenging because staff and lay leaders are used to thinking in more abstract, spiritual terms, rather than focusing on concrete results. Outcomes measure the change that occurs in program participants, not just the number and types of activities that are offered. For example, the results of an after-school tutoring program would be improved reading and math skills, rather than just the number of tutoring sessions offered.
The strength of your congregation and its ability to implement quality programs will also be considered by foundation and corporate funders. Funders like to support groups that are on a strong financial footing, so if your congregation is running a deficit it may be difficult to secure grant funding. Staff members and volunteers with strong experience in the field you are working in will increase your chances of being funded. Strong volunteer involvement can demonstrate to the funder that there is community support for what you are doing and that your congregation is committed to working in cost-effective ways to get the job done.
If you decide that grant funding is a good fit for your church, weighing the issues outlined above before you write your proposal will help your church have greater success in this competitive funding environment.
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Winning Grants to Strengthen Your Ministry by Joy Skjegstad
Ministry leaders possess the compassion, creativity, and knowledge about community needs that grant funders appreciate. Yet ministry groups are often less experienced than other types of nonpro
fit organizations in discerning which funding to seek, understanding how to build relationships with funders, and putting together proposals. This book by experienced grant-proposal writer Joy Skjegstad offers a pathway to strengthening new and existing ministries.
Starting a Nonprofit at Your Church by Joy Skjegstad
A large and growing number of congregations are setting up church-based nonprofit organizations in order to operate community development or educational programs. This book outlines the step-by-step procedures for setting up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization connected to a congregation using simple, easy-to-understand terminology and examples from churches that have already taken on this task.
Memories, Hopes, and Conversations by Mark Lau Branson
Mark Lau Branson demonstrates how concentrating on needs and problems can mire a congregation in discouragement—and how, by focusing on memories of the congregation at its best—members are able to build on those positive experiences as they shape the church’s future. Grounded in solid theory and real-life practice, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations is a groundbreaking work of narrative leadership and the first book to apply the principles of Appreciative Inquiry to the lives of congregations.