Facility
Going Pro
What to find out before choosing a maintenance contractor.

Churches hire people good at counseling, teaching, preaching, shepherding, and administration. Any church, however, has more moving parts than these. When the lawn needs mowing, the roof needs a patch, or the parking lot needs plowing, churches often look elsewhere to get the job done. These are the kinds of jobs that often require hiring an outside professional.

Church leaders must be sure they require outside help. If they do, they should use a number of best practices to ensure they make the best selection possible.

"One of our church's high values is that we will not outsource something when we have qualified volunteers who can—and wish to do—the work. I stress the word 'qualified,'" says Jim Boyd, director of support services for Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and vice president of communications for the National Association of Church Facility Managers.

Ken Meines, the director of facility services at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says he likes to do preventive maintenance in-house, and then outsource major repairs to professional contractors.

"I usually try to troubleshoot the problem far enough to either be able to order the part and fix it or know which vendor to contact," he says.

Making the Match

When churches look for outside help on their facilities, they most often need assistance with landscaping, cleaning, heating and air conditioning, plumbing, electrical work, and snow plowing.

The immediate objective is to match the job with the talents of the person or company you wish to hire.

"Sometimes a contractor will take a job because they need the work. But it may be outside of their primary area of expertise," says Frank Sommerville, an attorney and specialist in nonprofit law. "Develop a really good profile of your ideal candidate and ask questions to see how closely this particular candidate follows the profile that you created."

Enlist the help of other churches, businesses, and community organizations in your search for a reputable contractor. Do some of your own investigative work before you ask the candidates for references. Checking a company's website or telephone directory listing can yield good information, but these should not be the only sources. You need second and third opinions.

One way to start is by checking with consumer-oriented services, such as the Better Business Bureau or Angie's List. But other churches may be your best source of information. Ask questions and, if possible, go inspect the company's work.

"If churches are given as a reference, then I would recommend contacting the person who directly worked with the contractor for information on the contractor's quality of work, as well as the quality of service after the work," Boyd says.

Your network should also include national organizations, such as NACFM and the International Facility Management Association, and people in your congregation who have expertise in the business world.

Checking Credentials

Never take the claim "licensed and insured" at face value. To protect yourself, always ask for proof of licenses, insurance, and other documents that show sound legal and financial standing, and then verify that proof with the appropriate regulatory agencies.

Not all types of business are required to be licensed, and the level of licensing varies among states, counties, and cities. Typically, roofers and other building-related contractors are licensed, Sommerville says, while janitorial and landscaping services are not. Call governmental offices or check official websites to make sure.

"We always ask our contractors for the contact of their insurance company and have them send us a certificate of insurance," Boyd says. "If licensing is required for the job, they should be able to provide a copy of their license."

Depending on the nature of the project and the wording of the contract, it's important to confirm the amount of insurance coverage the contractor carries. If the work involves handling dangerous chemicals or involves any chance of injury, liability insurance is a must. The contractor should also carry worker's compensation coverage.

"We specify what we expect for coverage and verify the coverage with the insurance certificate. We are named as additionally insured on their policy," Meines says.

In addition, it's wise to determine whether you want the contractor bonded. A bonded contractor has bought a policy from a surety company to cover any losses that may be incurred if the contractor is unable to finish the job according to the terms of the contract.

"We ask for bonding from those who will be using several sub-contractors.This protects us from being liable in case the company fails to pay their sub-contractors," Boyd says.

If the company passes all the tests, have an attorney provide a second set of eyes and make sure the work contract you sign is in proper order.

Asking questions

Never hire an individual or a company to work at your church without a face-to-face meeting. Ask for a contractor's references at the same time you ask for proof of insurance, licensing, and, if appropriate, bonding. Probe further about the level of service provided. Ask how long the company has been in business (this often can be verified through a filing made online with the secretary of state's website as well).

Other key questions include:

  • How many accounts do you have? How many of them are or have been with churches? Churches have unique needs. The snow plowing service needs to be available Saturday night to get the parking lot ready for Sunday morning. Landscapers need to work on Friday so the grounds look their best on Sunday.
  • How financially healthy are you? "With bigger contracts, I like to see the financial statements of the business, or at least the balance sheet, to see whether they have the resources to do the job," Sommerville says. If the contract is substantial enough, consider paying for a Dun and Bradstreet report (dnb.com/us) on the financial health of the contractor (a "Business Information Report" from Dun and Bradstreet typically costs $119).
  • How many times in the last six months have you had to reschedule a visit to perform the service? Why? Rain is a legitimate reason for a landscaper to stay off the job. But if the landscaper owns old equipment that keeps breaking down (an economic issue), or has key employees that keep getting injured (a safety issue), that's cause for concern.

Getting Your Money's Worth

Responsible stewardship demands that your church gets its money's worth from the performance of a contractor. One good way to pursue this goal is to let a project out for bids. Ask for a detailed description of the work to be performed so that everyone is on the same page, Boyd advises.

"Going out for bids is the only real way to compare the numbers, but putting value on the quality of work gets harder. You should, once in awhile, double-check your current vendors' pricing with the local market," Meines says. "Local networking opportunities are a great way to compare as well. I have found some real estate/property management business guys in the church may have a good feel for the market."

The lowest bidder isn't always your best choice for the job.

"Let's take a landscape contractor. One of the ways to cut costs is to hire illegal aliens and run very old equipment, which will turn into performance problems, which means they might not be able to fulfill contract 100 percent of the time," Sommerville says.

Avoiding Conflicts

Why perform all this due diligence when one of your board members says he has a brother who is perfectly capable of doing the job, or a member of the congregation has expertise? When that situation arises, church leaders need to balance the feelings of their member while avoiding a real—or perceived—conflict of interest.

"Obtaining multiple bids/quotes helps prevent ethical issues," Boyd says. "If you use reasonable price, quality of workmanship, and expertise as part of the bidding process, this will help you be above board and ethical with everyone."

Some contractors who are within the church family will offer price discounts. The policy at Calvary is to double-check to see if the price offered is really a better deal.

"If I have a member that I feel is qualified for the work, I try to have a candid conversation letting them know of the work and, if they are interested in it, what process would take place to protect them and the church. If they do some work and, especially if they give a discount, do not assume they can or want to do that the next time. Open relationships are key to using vendors that are members of the church," Meines says.

Do some of your own investigative work before you ask the candidates for references.

If your church allows members to bid, their offers need to be treated the same as all the other bidders. When it comes time to award the contract, relatives or stakeholders in the company must not vote, or be a part of the decision about who wins the bid.

Some churches elect not do business with members or members' relatives as a matter of policy. If a deal goes sour, there's a risk of losing the members and bruising relationships.

But even under such a policy, there is still a way to get that member's company involved in the process.

"Your committee can say, 'Your company can't bid on it. But you know the business, so you should be able to help us find out who will be able to do it.' They can help the church that way," Sommerville says.

Taking Your Time

Perhaps the biggest mistake your church can make is to rush into the hiring process. Unless the situation is an emergency, you are better served by a deliberate, thorough process like the one described above.

"That's what really pays off," Sommerville says. "Don't be in a hurry to get the contract let. Take a few more days and hours. If you spend more time on the selection process, you spend less time on the management process."

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Posted: May 20, 2010

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