Big Society depending on church social action – but where will the money come from?
This past decade of austerity and cuts in publicly funded services has seen churches stepping in to fill the gaps: from foodbanks and Street Pastor projects to debt advice and even alternative education provision. Having moved on from a rather awkward era of mistrust between Government and faith sector in the ‘noughties’, the idea of Big Society ushered in a period when local communities came to depend upon a safety net of Church Social Action.
Social action coming of age
Now, I would argue, thousands of these local services are coming of age. I see it through the enquiries we receive at Action Planning, in my role as Trusts Manager for Cinnamon Network and in my position as a Trustee of Hope Nottingham, which oversees more than a dozen foodbanks across my home city. And these are some of the key questions being asked by churches and their social action projects:
- Are we missing out on grant funding opportunities?
- How will different types of external funding affect our independence?
- Are we comfortable accepting Lottery funding?
- How do we evidence the difference that our work is making?
- How do we balance social action for its own sake against our volunteers’ sense of Christian mission and witness?
In reality, these churches are full of enthusiastic, knowledgeable and highly resourceful project leaders, volunteers and Trustees, who are working tirelessly to build networks, collaborate and innovate in their service provision and their fundraising. And while, for some, an end to the era of austerity (if it does indeed arrive) may mean a sense of a job well done and a retreat from social action, I see no shortage of churches that are only just getting started and will, I believe, continue this vital work, sustaining it via a mix of congregational giving and a responsiveness to local funding opportunities.
Meanwhile, the large, national players in this field are also coming of age – those Christian charities that have arisen under visionary leadership to offer churches easily replicable models of service provision. They include CAP, Ascension Trust, TLG, Hope into Action and numerous others.
Their competitors are other charities of a similar size, all looking to innovate and grow in order to establish the kind of infrastructure required for larger charities, and particularly those with nationwide networks of semi-autonomous service provision.
All fundraising is taking place in an increasingly competitive market. We, the audience, are constantly being bombarded with eye-catching, on-trend fundraising communications across a wide range of media from a wide range of charities and causes. So these national, Christian charities will need to enter the new decade with a clear focus on fundraising and communications.
This means appeals for support from their main target audience – one which they know very well: Christians in church congregations across the UK. These appeals will be attractive, urgent and full of impact. And they will be communicated seven days a week, directly to their audiences’ social media feeds, email inboxes and even front doormats.
Cultivating generous congregations
So how can churches hope to compete for their share of the “Christian Pound” from their own congregations, particularly when the principle of tithing seems to be largely out of fashion?
Church leaders need to approach this challenge from three perspectives:
- First and foremost, those who preach from the front need to become comfortable talking about financial giving – not from a perspective of fundraising, but in order to cultivate generous congregations as an expression of Christian discipleship.
- Secondly, they need to not shy away from asking their generous congregations to give – and they need to ask regularly, laying out the financial circumstances, needs and, most importantly, the opportunities that arise for a well-resourced local church.
- Thirdly, they need to make it as easy as possible for their generous congregations to give, with means such as electronic payments and online giving.
Many churches and congregations are already doing this well. For them, effective governance, planning and financial management will allow them to stride confidently into a new, post-austerity decade, ready to serve their communities and pursue a wide range of opportunities. Those that are not doing this so well will struggle. Which are you, and how can we help?
Where you are now
In the current age it seems futile to make predictions of what the future holds. Instead, at Action Planning, we like to start from where you are now with your most pressing questions. So what questions are you asking?
Are you the national charity thinking about strong governance and strategic planning or fundraising? Perhaps you need to refresh your strategic vision? Are you the local social action project looking to plan for longer-term sustainability beyond the support of your own congregation? Or are you approaching a project to extend your church premises, and wondering how to fund this when your annual budget hardly breaks even?
Action Planning has enjoyed working with many churches over the past 30 years. We have a team of consultants who value the contributions of faith in society and can advise you from a Christian perspective on issues from governance and strategy, to fundraising and even recruitment.
Sean Tully coordinates our Church Capital Appeals clients and Trusts fundraising. He is also the Trusts Manager at Cinnamon Network and in 2019 started writing a blog about Christianity and generous giving.