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Building friends: a toolkit for new friends’ groups

When visiting a major historic tourist attraction, you may well have come across literature promoting a friends’ group there. But have you thought of setting one up for your church? You should – a friends’ group can bring huge benefits. It can help a parish to reach out to people beyond the congregation who can give the Parochial Church Council (PCC) and vicar a helping hand. It can help to give a church a life outside service times, turning it into a lively and vibrant community or arts venue. It can help with raising money for and organising major fabric repairs, it can see through projects that have been lingering on the ‘to do’ list for years. In short, it can bring about a radical and positive change in the fortunes of a church.

If you are one of the many people who knows that friends’ groups exist but not very much beyond that, or if you’ve thought about setting one up for your church but aren’t sure whether to take the plunge then this toolkit is for you. Let’s start with a bit of background about how friends’ groups started; in turn, that’ll help you to understand the benefits they can bring.

Why friends’ groups?

In the early 1920s the Dean of Chester experimented with abolishing the admission fee and trying various initiatives to encourage people to visit his cathedral. The impact that having it open regularly and not full of signs saying ‘Do not…’ and ‘No…’ was huge. The experiment was a success and other cathedrals followed suit. Public attitudes towards them changed. People began to feel the building was theirs and a place where they were welcome. The change in attitudes encouraged visitors to make donations, which sometimes more than made up for the loss of income from an admission charge.

Sometimes – but not always. Cathedrals are expensive places to run and it wasn’t possible to rely on voluntary donations to meet big repair bills. So friends’ groups were set up, aimed at appealing to anyone – even people living abroad – who cared about the building. A membership fee was charged, which went towards the cost of repairs, upkeep and, sometimes, beautification. In return newsletters were sent out to tell members how their money was being used to do good work. Friendship is a two-way thing, after all, and needs to be nurtured.

Back in the 1930s, supporting a cathedral was thought to be its own reward. Today the situation is a bit different. In recent decades many cathedrals have had to reintroduce admission fees – often quite hefty – to meet a shortfall in funding. Free admission is a now special perk of membership rather than something that goes without saying. But in addition to that special social functions are laid on for friends (with influential people on board, networking becomes a major selling point), or else they might get reduced price tickets to cultural events held in the cathedral. In other words, friends’ groups are more focused on providing active incentives to join.

For that reason what has worked for museums and cathedrals has been applied to parish churches. But just how do you sell the idea to your PCC if you’re trying to set up one for your own building?

  • It’s a way of turning to your advantage popular interest in heritage, which is huge right now – just look at the popularity of a TV series like ‘Restoration’ or an event like London Open House. Statistics show that historic churches are among the most popular visitor destinations in England: witness the number of books on the subject that come out each year and the bestseller status of Simon Jenkins’ ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches’.
  • A friends’ group can help with finding support – they can be excellent at mobilising volunteer labour and securing extra funds which a small congregation might well be pushed to scrape together on its own, especially the cost of conserving the fabric of the building and repairs.
  • A friends’ group can help to raise match funding when grants are being sought for major projects – sourcing anything up to 50 percent of the cost yourself is often a condition of securing them.
  • A friends’ group can help with major, one-off projects, especially work that isn’t covered by the Grants for Places of Worship scheme, such as getting defunct tower clocks and malfunctioning organs up and running again, maintaining ornaments and furnishings, cleaning pictures and wall paintings.
  • A friends’ groups can sponsor works to beautify the church which wouldn’t be eligible for funding from heritage bodies, such as new artworks, stained glass or plate.

The reason why your church might benefit from a friends’ group varies from parish to parish and there is no single right way of setting one up. But there is one golden rule that holds true in all cases and it’s this: always be able to explain convincingly and concisely to anyone you want to target why joining or supporting the Friends is a good thing to do.

A plan of action

What do you want to achieve?

If you think that your church could benefit from a friends’ group, then what do you do next? Well, the first thing you need to do is to get together with your vicar and the PCC and sound them out. Ask them what their vision is for the church and how setting up a friends’ group sits with achieving that. It’s vital for relations between the Friends and the parish to get off on the right foot – you must feel you are allies with shared aims. Here are some questions that might help to get the discussion started:

  • What are the problems facing the church building? It’s a good idea to know properly what you’re taking on. If your friends’ group is primarily concerned with supporting the fabric of the building then take the time to get to know its repair needs by talking this through with the PCC and looking at the most recent quinquennial inspection report. What can the friends aim to offer? Church sitters or guides? Grant fundraising for big projects? Make sure your house is in order before you embark on any big project! But for all that, don’t be afraid to…
  • Think big. Take a long-term view and think strategically. Where do you all want the church to be in five years’ time? 10 years’ time? 20 years’ time? What’s the masterplan? Does your PCC have a ‘bottom drawer’ project that it’d like to carry out if it hits the funding jackpot? Do a complete survey of the site, look at the assets that could be delivering more.
  • Put out as many feelers as possible. Who are the people who might have an interest in the church? Look for potential partners: is there a local residents’ association or a local amenity society? And do you have established relations with them? If not, then it’s time to build bridges. Talk to your archdeacon informally. Approach the Parish Property Support Team and DAC for informal advice. Do a consultation document for anyone with an interest – existing or potential – in the church. What do they feel it’s lacking? What do they want it to be? How might you engage them?
  • Don’t try and beat other people at their own game! You might well have heard or read about churches that operate as concert halls, or have been used to house community facilities such as post offices and crèches. These can be very effective and yield huge benefits for historic churches. But there’s no point in developing plans to operate your church as a hired venue if there’s a successful one already up and running only a few streets away. Look at what’s on offer locally and work out what your niche might be.

Setting up your group

If you’ve decided that there’s a good case for establishing a friends’ group for your church, the next thing to do is to work out how best to set it up. Start working towards a constitution setting out how it will operate (see Sections II and III of the Appendix for help with this). Here are some of the things to bear in mind:

  • What structure are you going to choose for your organisation? Some friends’ groups report to a sub-committee of the PCC with the vicar and churchwarden(s) as ex officio members, while others are completely separate organisations registered with the Charities Commissions. The latter option is strongly recommended if your annual income exceeds or is likely one day to succeed £5,000 (although if not you can still apply to HMRC for a Charity Number to qualify for various forms of tax exemption and relief). In that event, there needs to be a mechanism in place to ensure that PCC members and/or the incumbents are always represented on the committee. See Section I of the Appendix if you need more guidance on this. Will your chairman be presiding or executive? Whichever option you choose, it’s vital for there to be clear boundaries marking where responsibilities of the PCC begin and the activities of the friends’ group end.
  • Sort out finances early on. Will you use the PCC’s bank account or have your own? Do you need your own treasurer? Remember that it is the PCC that has ultimate legal responsibility for the care, maintenance, repair and insurance of the church and it cannot delegate it. Any contractors’ fees are paid by the PCC, which has responsibility for the work. How will you arrange things if you end up embarking on commercial operations?
  • Be transparent and accountable. Stipulate a term of office for members and regular meetings for the governing body in the constitution. Make sure there’s someone tasked with providing agendas and writing up the minutes. Have an AGM which is open to all PCC and parish members and keep them informed of your plans. Publish your accounts, send out an annual letter and a report of your AGM to your members.
  • State your aims. These need to be very concrete so avoid any woolly general declarations of intent! Have an executive summary so that you can ‘sell’ the organisation quickly and persuasively. It’s always easier to attract funds for clearly stated aims – donors like to know that their support will be embodied in an end result. A friends’ group should not be raising money to cover overheads such as heating, lighting and the parish share – these are the responsibility of the worshipping community.
  • Who does what locally and what’s the talent pool? Who are the people connected with the parish who might be able to bring something useful to the table? Perhaps you have people with useful skills in the area: surveyors, builders, lawyers, chefs, designers, craftspeople, or architects. But be tactful and act strategically because these people will also be busy, so direct them to what they’re good at and to tasks where they can bring the biggest benefit with the least outlay of time.
  • How will membership work? There’s no one correct way of structuring membership, but it’s important to think strategically. Whom do you intend to target with your membership drive? Do you want to attract practising members of the congregation or are you casting your net wider than that? Will there be an annual subscription fee or will there be a one-off donation for people joining the friends? Will be it fixed or just whatever people can usefully manage? Could you accept some sort of payment in kind (say, committing a certain number of hours each week) for people who can’t afford to pay any subscription? How about some sort of tiered system with different subscriptions and the number of benefits related to the size of the fee? Could you offer life membership? What benefits might friends get? Discounts at the shop, special functions such as receptions, concerts, talks, children’s events, flower festivals and so on – these are all things to consider. Be flexible, but don’t under-sell the Friends and make sure any subscription covers the costs of membership (e.g. mailings and a newsletter) and includes a percentage for funds.

Launch and operation

  • Make a splash when you launch your friends’ group. Tie it to a big event – say, your patronal festival, or an important anniversary (such as the completion of the building, or birth of the architect). Have the building open to visitors throughout the day, organise a programme of activities for all ages and refreshments. Publicise it widely before and after: get the vicar to include it in notices, distribute fliers to properties in the parish, invite along a reporter from the local paper, use the Diocese’s communications team. Most importantly, make the most of the opportunity to recruit new members – have application forms on hand and someone to collect them.
  • Good communication is vital! Make sure you have someone on your team tasked with organising publicity. If you’ve put time and effort into generating goodwill and interest at the outset then it’s important not to dissipate either. Don’t make a big noise and then go silent on your members as it’ll be very difficult to regain their interest. Think about setting up a website or adding a page to the existing parish website. Don’t neglect the value of printed newsletters and annual reports either – receiving something tangible is important for fostering a sense of belonging in friends who aren’t actively involved in your activities. Decide whether the newsletter is going to be profit-making or provided as a service to members. How will you cover the cost of printing and postage?
  • Make the most of social networking, virtual and real: media like Twitter and Facebook and photo-sharing sites such as Flickr are an excellent quick and easy way of demonstrating ongoing activity and holding interest even when there aren’t major developments to report. Organise social events and entertainments to bring people together. The more friends bond, the more likely they are to give their time and money. Even if ticket sales don’t bring in enormous sums of money, there may be dividends later on.
  • Emphasise the positive, play up your achievements. In the early stages go for ‘quick wins’ and visible things (e.g. new sacral items, new lighting) which can be easier to do than major repair or development projects. Make sure you get maximum mileage out of the publicity. List any work which has been wholly or part-funded by the friends in your newsletter or on your website. Vital though work like structural repairs is, it doesn’t always give you a lot to show for your efforts. Show friends that you can deliver what you promise and how their support and donations are making a difference. Never engage in emotional blackmail (e.g. “The church will fall down if you don’t give us your money”) as this is counter-productive. Make sure the church is open regularly for friends to see your achievements for themselves and have plenty of good quality photographs on your website and in your newsletter for those who can’t.
  • Could you get any celebrities on board as patrons? Are there any famous local residents? Are there famous people – or living descendants of famous people – who have associations with the church? What you need is the attention that their name will attract, so ask if he/she would allow it to be used on letterheads, publicity material etc.
  • Be effective in managing people, but don’t be over-ambitious. You’ll probably be doing your work for the Friends in your free time (at first, at any rate), so there’ll be a limit to what you can take on. Make sure that not too much falls on the shoulders of one person: quite apart from the unreasonable workload if that person is indisposed, the Friends’ activities will grind to a halt! Make sure everyone reports back on progress with tasks assigned to them and is able to delegate if circumstances change. Ensure nobody ‘sits’ on tasks, promising to carry them out but never delivering. Give everyone clearly defined aims and deadlines and build on people’s strengths, capabilities and specialist knowledge. Give them tasks that you know from experience they’ll do well.
  • Most importantly, always say thank you to friends for their support! This really can’t be over-emphasised.


  • Make sure you take advantage of Gift Aid. This allows a registered charity to reclaim tax paid by UK taxpayers from HMRC, meaning that for every £1 donated you will get 25p back. The rules on Gift Aid are changing in the 2013-14 financial year to make reclaiming tax easier, but it’s always good to have Gift Aid declarations to hand. Include them with renewal and subscription forms when you mail your members.
  • Don’t be shy about approaching potential donors. Put together a prospectus with a donation form to make it easier to solicit support when approaching potential big donors. Build and foster relations with affluent local residents – it might well bear fruit if you mount a big fundraising drive. But if you do, make them feel like they’re getting the VIP treatment, so write to them individually, give your communication with them a personal touch and offer them special benefits.
  • You probably won’t get all the money you need in one go, so phase your funding. Let funders see the bigger picture, but be able to explain short-term aims as well. In the early stages you’ll need to concentrate on pump-priming. Don’t be over-ambitious – it’s important not to focus all your energies on a scheme which requires a big cash injection and possibly also lengthy consultation with the Diocesan advisery Committee and external bodies before it can get off the ground. Think big, but start modest. Donors will want to see proof that you can actually do something constructive with the money you get.
  • Is your building worthy of listing or upgrading? Some churches – often those put up in the 19th and 20th century – have been overlooked for listing. Talk to the Parish Property Support Team and to the relevant amenity societies (The Victorian Society and the 20th Century Society) and see whether there’s a good case for putting in an application to English Heritage. Getting a building listed or upgraded can unlock all sorts of useful extra funding.
  • Approach major funders at an early stage! Leaving off your first contact with them until you submit a completed application can mean setting yourself up for a fall. Talk to bodies like the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) about what you want to do, find out whether it’s something they’d support and how it squares with their priorities and selection criteria.
  • Look at all the ways in which you could solicit donations. Collecting boxes and fund-raising ‘thermometers’ outside churches are a thing of the past thanks to new channels such as on-line giving. The easier you make it, the more likely you are to be successful.
  • Invest surplus funds or funds which won’t be used in the immediate future. If the sums concerned are significant, then consult a professional financial adviser about the most effective way of doing this.

Funding bodies – some advice and useful links

There are many sources of funding open to organisations looking after historic places of worship. Grants for urgent structural works are available from the Grants for Places of Worship scheme operated and financed by the HLF. There are several other schemes operated by the HLF for which non-urgent works to historic places of worship may be eligible. Early-stage advice on any of the HLF’s grant programmes can be gained by submitting a project inquiry form. The HLF is a leading funder and gives generously to parish churches every year but by no means the only one, so do cast your net widely. Sourcing funding for charitable organisations is a huge topic because of the enormous number of different bodies. Fortunately there are plenty of directories of funders available, some of them free of charge, to help you work out which ones to approach. The golden rule is to do your homework properly: check your organisation or funding bid is eligible for assistance, always read the grant-giver’s requirements carefully and check the information that you need to submit with your application. All these criteria will vary from organisation to organisation. Even if you apply to several bodies at the same time – and it is well worth doing so to avoid putting all your eggs in one basket – tailor your application to each one accordingly. Round robin funding letters and standard applications are likely to be rejected out of hand. Remember also that VAT on approved works can be refunded under the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme.

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