Philanthropy and the church



Congregations have long been accustomed to seeking financial support from their own members. But a growing number today are looking beyond their own walls for additional support to fund much-needed community services, said the Rev. Joe Mann.

“Churches have had to turn to foundations, individuals and even government for support, because the church tithe is not going to cut it,” he said.

Mann was the director of the Rural Church Division of The Duke Endowment for 20 years. During his time at the Endowment, much of rural North Carolina experienced devastating economic decline, and local churches throughout the state rallied to meet growing needs. Mann later worked for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and continues to teach at Duke Divinity School.

“In many rural communities, the church is about the only institution left,” Mann said. “So the church becomes an institution that provides moral and other support for an entire community.”

Mann said the most successful grant applications he saw at the Endowment had two things in common: a clear vision of what the applicants wanted to achieve and a “spark plug,” a committed member who was determined that the vision would become reality.

“When I saw a spark plug,” Mann said, “I would be much more confident that what these people wanted to achieve would actually happen.”

Mann spoke recently with Faith & Leadership about philanthropy and the local church and offered some advice on how congregations can connect more effectively with foundations and other donors.


Q: What is the role of philanthropy in the local church, and how has it changed in the last 10 to 20 years?

Philanthropy in America is driven by a broad interest in improving society, making progress, kind of an American sense of, “We can make a difference.”

Churches fit into that, but they are also a little different. We believe in love. We believe in charity. We believe that everything is not about economic progress. It is not just materialism that’s important for people. It’s also about spirit and heart.

But in addition to being a type of philanthropy, churches today are also increasingly becoming seekers of philanthropic support, looking for outside sources to help fund their charitable efforts.

Many churches are at capacity in their ability to provide services. Going back to the Clinton administration, government has been asking faith-based groups to be a larger part of the social safety net.

In response, many churches increased their efforts. I know churches that for the first time began doing mentoring to parishioners, and job training, and saw that as a part of their congregational life in ways that they had not before.

But it takes resources to do that. So churches have had to turn to foundations, individuals and even government for support, because the church tithe is not going to cut it.

Q: Are there particular places that churches and church-related institutions should be looking for resources that they might not know about?

Churches that are mounting significant social programs for the good of the community could probably do a better job engaging small family foundations. There are a lot of them that barely get attention. You have to seek them out, but they are the very kind of foundation that might be willing to work with a church.

Many foundations don’t want to partner with a church for fear of proselytizing, so it’s not necessarily an easy sell. But I do think that churches have too seldom looked around and asked, “Are there foundations we could ask?”

But the greatest philanthropic dollars don’t come from foundations. They come from individuals. Churches already know this, because the greatest number of philanthropic dollars actually go from individuals to churches.

But even with gifts to universities, art museums and not-for-profits, the biggest dollars come from individuals who have said, “I like what you’re doing and I’m willing to support you.”

Churches are used to individual gifts with their own congregations. I’m not so sure they’ve learned how to do that beyond their congregations.

If I were running a not-for-profit community program from a church, I would certainly look internally for support. But I would also look for people in the community who might support the effort, people I could talk with and perhaps convince that this is something they ought to invest in.

Q: Speak some about philanthropy and the rural church. What role does it play in the rural church, and how did that change in your time with The Duke Endowment?

In many rural communities, the church is about the only institution left. Hospitals have gone. Schools have gone. There might be a rural fire department, and some government of some sort. So the church becomes an institution that provides moral and other support for an entire community.

Communities in rural North Carolina have great needs. Most of my 20 years at the Endowment was a period of decline in rural America, in rural North Carolina for sure, and certainly over the last 10 to 15 years, remarkable decline.

Almost every community in North Carolina lost tobacco, furniture or textiles -- often all three. There were enormous layoffs and economic disruption in communities with almost no relief services.

Our rural churches, I’m glad to say, responded. I saw far more churches starting food pantries over the last 20 years than I’d ever seen before. Churches told us they had people out of work who were hungry and needed food.

Transportation is another problem. You might have a food bank in the county seat, but if you live 20 miles away and have no transportation, it might as well be in another country. So we saw a proliferation of very strong hunger and feeding programs at the Endowment that were coming through churches.

Rural communities were also lacking in child care centers, so we challenged rural churches to respond. Many churches began taking their fellowship hall and classrooms and offering morning or afternoon programs, after-school programs and, in some instances, even full child care.

Q: So in the midst of economic devastation in rural North Carolina, many churches became more vital, more “church” than before.

In some ways, yes, at least in terms of being a community care agency. In many rural areas and even urban neighborhoods, churches are far more than just their own membership. They are recognized as a community agency even by those who are not members.

About 15 years ago, Partners for Sacred Places studied Catholic churches that were closing throughout the Rust Belt and found that closing a church is about more than just losing a community.

It’s to lose a community center. It’s to lose a facility that folks had counted on in a variety of ways. So they worked very hard to help Catholic churches that couldn’t survive as a working parish become a community center.

In some ways, our rural churches are like that, but luckily, they’re still active. They’re still small congregations.

One reason The Duke Endowment was important and all foundations can be important for churches is that most churches don’t have extra money to start any of these programs.

Q: What makes for a good grant proposal?

One, it may sound trite, but the grant applicants need to make sure they have thought about who they’re sending it to. I saw grant applications that read as if they just picked us randomly and didn’t look at what we funded.

Good grant proposals are grants that people have taken some time to research and determine if a particular foundation might be interested. Information on all major foundations is available online and in annual reports.

Successful grant applicants have not only done their homework; they’ve also talked to someone at the foundation. They’ve talked to a program officer.

Almost any grant that’s just thrown over the transom is not going to get anywhere. The grants officer is going to bury it, because he or she doesn’t know anything about these people or where it came from.

If there is any confusion about what a foundation might fund, pick up the phone and call an officer. Talk to them. That’s what they’re there for.

A successful grant proposal has clarity about what you want to do. Make sure you’re talking about results, not just activities. That has become much bigger in any foundation over the last 10 years or so.

There was a time when someone would send an application saying, “I want to start a child care center in a rural church, and I think we can serve 50 kids. We’ll give them a meal and a Bible study each day, and they will be happy all day long.”

For years I would say, “That sounds good.” There is value in keeping kids safe and helping parents, but over time, almost every foundation has started asking, “But to what effect?”

That’s always the question you want to ask yourself: “What difference will this program make?” Because a good funder will ask it.

Q: What would get you excited about a grant application?

Two things.

The first was when there were people who had seen some hurt or pain, some need in the community that the church could address, and they knew what they wanted to do. They had a clear vision.

The other was when a grant proposal had somebody behind it who was a “spark plug.” A grant proposal could have many wonderful ideas, but when I visited and saw a spark plug, someone who was determined to see the program happen, I would go away much more excited than if five or six people were saying, “Yeah, that would be kind of a good idea.”

I would be much more confident that what these people wanted to achieve would actually happen.

Q: That notion of looking around and seeing the hurt and pain in a community would seem to be a great starting point for philanthropy -- for all ministry, for that matter.

Yeah, that’s right. Whether bishops, district superintendents or seminaries, we probably don’t help pastors think enough about looking at their situation and their community. We teach them to look at the church community and think about worship and education, but we don’t help them think about, “Well, how do I assess the needs in our broader community?”

Many churches are fairly insular. One of the great strengths of our small-membership churches is that they care for each other, but that does not always mean that they are as open to others beyond their circle.

But they are a key institution in the community. If they looked around, they would see issues and problems, as well as resources, that they don’t always see.


Q: Talk about scale. How big should a grant proposal be? Should churches plan big, with a project that’s slightly out of their reach, or something well within their capabilities?

Scale is an enormous concern for every philanthropy. Some will only work at scale.

They’re not interested in somebody who wants to dig a well for a poor village in Haiti. They want someone who has worked in Haiti on water issues and is now prepared to provide water for most of rural Haiti. They want someone who can take it to scale and make a difference.

That may be unfair to folks just getting started, but many funders are tired of small programs that might help a few people but aren’t moving the dial on a given social issue.

Q: So if I’m a rural church, am I supposed to come up with as big a proposal as I can, or do I keep it small so I can pull it off?

You need to have it in line with your resources. For example, a church came to me with a proposal to start a child care facility in a public school. The school did not provide on-site child care and was very remote.

The principal couldn’t keep teachers who had small children, and he challenged the church to operate a child care facility in the school building.

We were intrigued for several reasons. Rural communities need good teachers, and they were going to lose theirs if they couldn’t give them a way to tend to their kids.

I was interested in seeing a program that was sustainable and that would work. But after a little while, with some success, the pastor was ready to expand it to another site, and then after about five or six years, they had five different child care sites.

They were able to do that because they learned from the one. It grew into the two and then three and gained economies of scale, and they were able to serve even more people.

Q: How much of a project should be funded by a single donor?

One of the peculiar things about philanthropy is that there is not a rational market for getting resources. If you’re a business that wants to start something, you go to a bank.

For not-for-profits, there is no bank. You’ve got to look in your community and find out who’s interested. What foundation would support this?

But very few foundations like to be the sole funder. Funders believe that means the project is too dependent on them. And most foundations are not going to be a regular funder over time; they see themselves as startups.

Generally, most people are better off with multiple funding sources. If you have only one source of income, then you’re in a precarious position. If the donor gets mad at you or has a bad year, then you could be in trouble.

Courtesy of Faith & Leadership www.faithandleadership.com.  The opinions in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Florida Conference.




Contact Us

The Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church

450 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue
Lakeland, FL 33815

(863) 688-5563 or toll free (800) 282-8011