Catalyst, Leadership, Philanthropy, Vision

Why Doesn’t Catalyst Fund Churches?

When we launched our organization in February of 2008 one of the first decisions we made was that we wouldn’t offer grants to churches. It was actually a very easy decision and one made with very little debate. On our website’s FAQs we put it this way:

5. Does Catalyst support church-based projects?

Not at this time. We support our own churches with time, energy, and resources; but are not seeking partnership with churches or church movements.

We also know that most of our closest grantmaking peers, like Bridgeway Foundation and some others involved in Stronger Together have similar policies. In fact, there are relatively few foundations who are open to funding local churches within North America though several support church planting in other countries.

For me this is rooted in a couple basic convictions:

1. Local churches should generally be self-supporting. The people who actually come together regularly for worship, friendship, and spiritual development should be growing in their own willingness to give financially to support the staff, facility, and programs of their congregation.

2. It’s too hard to discern a good church grant from a bad one. With so many churches (Canada Revenue lists nearly 16000 registered charities with the word church in their name) and such a variety of needs (brand new groups trying to reach a community, growing congregations struggling to accomodate space, declining churches unable to pay all their bills, various crises and opportunities) their simply isn’t enough time to properly assess the volume of applications we could receive if we opened that door.

3. Churches are unreliable from a funders perspective. Churches have been assessed as among the most complex organizations around. With a generally broad purpose (reflecting the wholistic purposes of God), fairly frequent leadership changes in many cases, and the challenge of determining if the congregation should be considered volunteers to the organization or clientele, it is common for things to change in ways that make grants difficult to manage or measure.

This has worked quite well for the most part but sometimes I come across a church that functions in many ways more like a nonprofit agency in terms of community impact and mission than a lot of other nonprofits do. Sanctuary in Toronto and Hughson St Baptist in Hamilton are examples. As more healthy churches begin to understand the role they can and should play in serving the entire community (not just their regular attenders) the lines defining what is and what is not a church become blurry.

Movements like True City and Kingsfield that represent a number of churches sharing resources towards mission are fantastic, but add to the complexity of the challenge for funders.

So far I don’t have a comfortable resolution for this, so our policy stays the same. I have encouraged some churches to partner with other nonprofit agencies to create an application that satisfies our criteria, but it can feel like we’re just sneaking in instead of celebrating the great efforts that are being made to serve people with needs.

There are other challenging areas for me. What do I do with compelling but entirely unproven ideas, organizations, and people? How do I respond to those who I know have failed or underperformed in the past? What about good organizations that have yet to receive their charitable status?

It’s a constant process of learning and I’m open to your suggestions.