A Short Word on Church Grants

A surprising number of churches – sometimes churches that otherwise have very little money – provide grants to nonprofit organizations. I know this because I write a dozen or so applications for these grants every year. And having filled out a few dozen grant applications, having answered many questions about mission and vision and impact, and having attached all of the required supporting documentation, I had to ask: is this really the best way for churches to be managing their mission budgets?

Let me give an example. I recently submitted a grant that, in addition to a few pages of questions about the purpose for which the funds would be used, required: a current operating budget, a recent audited financial statement, a list of current funding sources, documentation of nonprofit status, a recent annual report, a list of members of the board of directors with affiliations, and copies of brochures. The final document was 32 pages long and about a quarter of an inch thick. The size of the grant being requested? About $5,000.

And while I was putting this all together, I was asking myself: is this committee really going to read the financial statement? Are they going to compare funding sources? Are they going to evaluate the affiliations of our board members? Is all of this information really going to help them compare the organizations applying for grants and make a decision?

I suspect the answer is: probably not.

Here’s my experience. The churches who give in response to my grant applications tend to be churches who would have given anyway: they ask me to submit an application, other groups in the church give, and so on. The grant application is documentation for a decision they’ve already made. We’re either an organization that they support or an organization that they don’t. And while there are many things that might convince a church that doesn’t support us to send some money, a grant application usually isn’t one of them.

I don’t know why churches – especially those that aren’t among the few that manage large foundations – require grant applications. I suspect that it’s a signal to their congregations that they’re very serious about how they use their mission money. They aren’t just giving money away. They review financial statements, they evaluate board membership, they know about other funding sources, they have Robert Lupton’s Oath for Compassionate Service in their criteria. The mission committee is doing very serious work. They’re as thorough as a community foundation or a government agency.

Look at see: there’s paperwork! This application is 32 pages long! It’s a quarter of an inch thick!

As you might have guessed, I’m not convinced this is a good way for most churches to make decisions about giving.

First, I don’t think that most mission committees have a strong method for evaluating and comparing all of this data. This is especially true when it comes from different organizations taking different approaches to solving different problems under different circumstances. I have nothing but respect for church mission committees, but I doubt that their well equipped to take on a task that even professionals at foundations find challenging.

Second, I don’t think that churches want people like me spending our time on these grants; and I really don’t think that they want staff at smaller organizations – organizations without dedicated fundraising staff – doing so. The size of many church grants means that it’s likely to be smaller organizations applying for them. I don’t think that the churches want the executive director of one of those organizations to spend six or eight hours writing answers to questions and assembling supporting documents. They want that executive director to be fulfilling the mission of their organization!

So what can churches do instead? Select the organizations that they want to support… and support them! Better yet, pick the organizations that they know – the places where members volunteer, or where they go on mission trips, or who send guest speakers to your Lenten program – and send money. Easy.

Now, I get it. Sometimes we worry about whether our money will be used well by an organization. Sometimes we worry about whether an organization will spend our money on the wrong thing. Sometimes we worry about whether an organization will be around in a few years. If you’re worried – whether you’re a church mission committee or an individual – pick of the phone or send an email. I promise, any nonprofit worth your gift will be happy to answer your questions.

Just please help us spend less time filling out forms and more time doing the work you want to support.