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Capital Campaigns for Historic Preservation: How to Prepare Your Small Congregation

An interesting phenomenon is currently playing out in historic preservation. The fact is that the responsibility for the future of America’s religious, architectural, and cultural history depends disproportionately on small religious congregations. This presents unique challenges. Frequent repairs are a fact of life for the congregations who inhabit these buildings and, in order to stay true to the original architectural style of the building, repairs are often highly specialized – bringing the costs up significantly. The other fact is that people, outside of congregations (community residents, etc.), care deeply about preserving these treasures and are willing to get involved.

This means that now, more than ever, congregations and communities are joining together to preserve their history. However, it is often up to congregations to take the first step, and one way to do this is through fundraising and capital campaigns.

To help congregations better understand what to consider as they prepare to take that first step, we partnered with the New York Landmarks Conservancy to present the workshop “Capital Campaigns for Small Congregations.” The session was an opportunity to share best practices in capital campaigns, explore creative ways to fundraise for historic buildings, and understand the role professional counsel can play.

These four takeaways are excerpts from that discussion that your congregation can begin implementing today as you prepare for a capital campaign.

  1. Focus on building a strong and healthy congregation now:  Communicating why your mission is critical and how you plan to carry out this mission in the future is the foundation of any successful capital campaign. Involving all of your members in this process will bring in fresh perspectives and deepen their level of engagement with fellow congregants and church leadership. By engaging them early on in the process, they will naturally be more inclined to give and ask others to give when the time is right.
  2. Widen your net: Look beyond your congregants into the greater community, such as neighbors who care about preserving the unique history of your neighborhood or who support the mission-focused services you provide (e.g., soup kitchens, public meeting spaces, etc.). Individuals who may benefit from your existence in any way should be considered as prospects. Find these people and start cultivating them now.
  3. Explore foundation and government grants: While strong campaigns should rely on a strong base of individual donors, grants can provide a catalyst to inspire supporters. Securing a large grant before launching your campaign will motivate your core donors (as well as your fundraising staff) by giving them a “head start” toward the goal. If you are unfamiliar with grant writing or research, seek professional guidance early in the process, as deadlines may be well in advance of your campaign timelines.
  4. Be clear about your building’s greatest need: The repairs needed in most historic churches far exceed the capacity of a capital campaign, so identify the most critical repairs first and begin planning now (looking at architects, requesting estimates, etc.). Understand what renovations are possible should you not meet your goal and have a plan ready if (when!) you exceed your goal. The New York Landmarks Conservancy provides technical assistance and advice specifically with this aspect, so call on them for help.

While these four tips will help set your capital campaign up for success, it is important to remember: a capital campaign is about more than your building – it’s about your mission. Every brick, tile, and windowpane is an investment in your mission. Never lose sight of that.