Churches and the Funding Game (revisited)

In January 2011  I wrote a short article for ‘Community Mission’ (Tearfund / Livability) called ‘The funding game and the path of integrity‘, which has subsequently appeared on the Evangelical Alliance’s new church and community website – ‘Serve’.

Re-reading it nearly two years later, I’m struck by how quickly and dramatically the funding landscape is changing. And it makes me think that some of what I wrote sounds out-dated. But I still think the essential essential argument – that churches, and indeed all third sector organisations, need to become more critical and discerning in decisions about funding, still holds. And the issues around relationships with the State and the Market tie in with some of the questions the Third Sector Research Centre are currently asking through their ‘Third Sector Futures‘ series of dialogues (to which I hope to contribute soon if I get the chance).

My original article is currently available via the Serve UK website. But in case it disappears or the location changes, I’ve also posted the full text below:

Andy Wier (2011) The funding game and the path of integrity

The years of plenty are over. These are uncertain times for all community projects and ‘third sector’ organisations in Britain – especially those that have become used to substantial amounts of government funding. Many of us have already begun to experience the effects of the drastic public spending cuts heralded by October’s Spending Review. And if we haven’t yet, we soon will.

 How should we respond to this? By re-positioning ourselves to capitalise on whatever funding opportunities may come from David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’? By shifting our fund-raising efforts towards non-governmental sources? By going down the social enterprise route?

I don’t want rule out any of these options. But ultimately I believe we should be asking some more searching questions about the significance of our decisions about funding. We need to be thinking about what it means to play the ‘funding game’ with integrity.

From my experience of working with churches and community organisations, I know it can be incredibly easy to end up playing the funding game uncritically – simply opportunistically grabbing whatever grants or contracts we can get our hands on without thinking through the deeper implications. Having written numerous funding bids over the years, I have become well-accustomed to the ‘art’ of tailoring a project to meet a particular funder’s criteria and of trying to pitch my bid in a way that convinces the grant assessor that the project in question is truly “transformational”, “innovative”, “community-led”, and “sustainable” (or whatever else this particular funder wants it to be). On one level I know this is something we all have to do. But on another level, I’m tired of playing the same old game year after year and can’t help wondering how much good its doing.

I’m beginning to think that there’s more at stake in decisions about funding than we often realise and I want to briefly consider three dimensions to this:

1.      Siding with government

When we accept government funding, we are implicitly agreeing to become delivery agents of government. This is not necessarily a bad thing because there are times when we may find ourselves broadly supportive of particular government agendas. But there are also potential downsides which can easily go unnoticed amidst the clamour for resources. Accessing public funding can diminish our organisation’s ability to challenge or criticise government policy. It increasingly necessitates a professionalised mindset and reliance upon paid staff that potentially compromises the distinctive qualities of supposedly ‘grassroots’ community initiatives. Over time a reliance on State funding can very easily become an addictive and ultimately unsustainable habit. And for churches and other faith communities, it can create considerable pressures to dilute or press into the background our faith motivations.

 

2.      Rules of the market

The competitive bidding processes that characterise the funding game can easily persuade us to adopt a ‘win at all costs’ mentality. One of the most common ways in which this manifests itself is exaggeration: Knowing that only the very highest scoring applications will be funded, we are ‘creative’ in the way we present our consultation findings and fill our funding bids with superlatives to describe how ‘groundbreaking’ our work is, how ‘disadvantaged’ our service users are. In order to justify this approach, we may tell ourselves that everyone else is doing it and that a little bit of ‘spin’ is unavoidable. But once we start playing this game, it’s very difficult to determine where good marketing ends and untruthfulness begins.

 

3.      Role improvisation

Over the years, I’ve encountered lots of third sector organisations reinventing themselves to access new pots of funding. This can often mean presenting themselves in different ways to different audiences. A church-based community centre for example, in applications to different funding bodies, might describe itself as a grassroots community-led initiative, a social enterprise public service provider, and a fresh expression of church. This might initially seem to be simply a matter of window dressing, but I think there are deeper issues at stake. While it is obviously important that our organisations continue to adapt and evolve, this has got to be more than jumping on the latest bandwagon. As this parody of 1 Corinthians 9: 20-23 suggests, continual reinvention of ourselves within the funding arena can risk compromising our distinctive identity and character:

 To the local authority we have become a community anchor organisation. To the Police we have become a crime reduction project. To the Primary Care Trust, we have become a healthy living centre. To the Church of England we have become a fresh expression. We have become all things to all people so that by all possible means we might generate more income and justify our existence.

 

I have highlighted three different kinds of risks associated with the funding game but what are we to do in response? Must churches steer clear of government funding in order to maintain purity and distinctiveness? Should they refuse to participate in competitive bidding processes and role improvisation? Does pursuing the path of integrity mean opting out of the funding game and reverting to less grant dependant lightweight models?

This I believe would be an over-reaction. Despite all that I have said about the risks inherent within the funding game, I believe that the process of applying for external funding can often be an enormously helpful one. The need to present a clear and carefully thought through rationale for a project is a very healthy discipline. And as Nigel Oakley (2006, p. 509) suggests, the fact that funding bodies look for evidence of community consultation requires churches to interact with their communities in a way they may not do if funding projects from their own resources.

So it’s not as simple as it being either right or wrong for churches to apply for particular kinds of external funding.  But I strongly believe that we need to make time to stop and reflect about how we are conducting ourselves within the funding arena. There are no easy answers or best-practice toolkits on how to do this. But I would suggest that the most helpful starting point is getting into the habit of regularly asking questions like:

  • Have I been completely truthful in what I’ve said and implied in my funding bids?
  • Whose agenda are we serving? Whose empire am I building?
  • Would another organisation be better placed to deliver this project?
  • Are we staying true to our original vision?
  • Do we really need this funding?

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that if they seek first God’s Kingdom and righteousness, all the resources they need will be given to them as well (Mathew 6:33). This verse speaks to me of the importance of combining vision (‘his Kingdom’) with character (‘his righteousness’) and trusting ultimately in God’s provision.

What if I was to take this seriously the next time I have to write a funding bid?

 

REFERENCES

Oakley, Nigel. (2006). Wise as Serpents? Can Christian Organisations make a claim on secular funding without losing their integrity? Political Theology , 7 (4), 507-525.

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