Good economic times or bad, many congregations look for new kinds of funding for ministry programs. I often run into church staff members who are convinced there is a "magic grant" somewhere that can alleviate their congregation's financial worries—they just need to find it.
Usually, though, there is no magic grant. Congregations who receive grants often work at securing the funding during a period of years because building relationships with funders takes time.
Grants, it's also important to note, most often go toward supporting church programs focused on serving the community, and usually can't be directed toward deficits, operating expenses, or the core internal ministry programs of a church.
Throughout the years, I have worked with a number of church congregations that have secured grants to support their community ministry efforts. This outside funding helps churches hire outreach staff, and sponsor health clinics, housing programs, youth centers, and schools (among many other programs). If administrative or pastoral staff members of the church are working on community programs, then grants may even pay part of their salaries.
The following are six characteristics of church programs that are most likely to receive funding from a foundation or corporation. A church that can answer "Yes" to all or most of the items on the list has a better chance of successfully finding grants to help with its ministry efforts:
1) The program benefits at least some people outside of your church congregation. Many foundations and corporations are sensitive to supporting programs that are targeted to an exclusive group of people. A proposal that benefits only church members or people in a particular denomination (or just Christians, for that matter) may struggle to secure grants. Foundations and corporations often work communitywide on key issues and want to see that as many people as possible have access to the services they fund.
2) The program is not one of the core internal programs of your church. Many foundations and corporations will not support core internal ministry programs of a church, such as worship, spiritual formation, Sunday school, or pastoral care. From a funder's perspective, church members ought to be the ones who pay for services they use in a church setting. There are exceptions to this, such as the funding received through a denomination, or through foundations like the Lilly Endowment, which work to build the capacity of clergy.
3) The church can separate out the spiritual component of the program or make it optional. Foundations and corporations that do not have spiritual goals for their grantmaking are unlikely to support a program with a spiritual component that's mandatory for participants (for example, requiring participants at your youth center to attend Bible study or worship services). It's important for you to be clear about whether spiritual outcomes are a key part of your vision and a key component of your program before you have a conversation with a funder who may not share your spiritual goals.
4) The program possesses clearly defined outcomes. What changes in the lives of your participants because of your work? You need to answer this question in concrete terms before you apply for grants. Outcomes aren't just a list of the activities you deliver, such as the number of tutoring sessions offered each week or the number of doctor visits at the health clinic. Outcomes in these cases would be improved test scores or grade-point averages for students, or the successful early detection and treatment of health problems.
5) The program possesses a well-developed plan. Spend time developing a clear plan for your program before you submit your proposal. In detail, you should describe:
- who will be served;
- where and when the program will occur, and how often;
- the activities involved;
- the role of staff and volunteers.
6) The program works collaboratively with other organizations. Collaboration is a key trait that funders look for in grant applicants, and they will look to see if you have partnered with "key players" in your community. For example, if your church runs a job training and placement initiative, you might partner with a transitional housing program that can provide housing for your clients. So consider how you might collaborate with schools, other churches, health professionals, and other groups of people to add value for your program participants. Spend some time developing those partnerships before sending the proposal.
By keeping the above points in mind, your church may find grant support for its outreach efforts. In my experience, grant funders can be great partners in ministry, adding their resources to the time and money provided by the members of your congregation.
Joy Skjegstad is a speaker and consultant on nonprofit management and ministry development. She is the author of Winning Grants to Strengthen Your Ministry (Alban Institute, 2007).