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Building friends: a toolkit for new friends’ groups

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 have thought about setting one up for your church but aren’t sure whether to take the plunge then this toolkit is for you.

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 was not possible to rely on voluntary donations to meet big repair bills. Friends’ groups were set up, aimed at appealing to anyone, even people living abroad, who cared about the building or place. 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 are trying to set up one for your own building?

  • It is a way of turning to your advantage popular interest in heritage, statistics show that historic churches are among the most popular visitor destinations in England.
  • 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 is not easily covered by grants, 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: 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?

It is important to note that a Friends’ group can have two functions:

(a) to provide funds for the maintenance of the fabric of the church and potentially its beautification; and

(b) to provide a forum for interested people to network and/or stay in touch with the church sometimes from a distance.

You need to think about which is the most important function, as this will determine how the group should be set up.  In most cases the primary objective of the group will be to provide funds to support the church and these will be raised through networking and other events.  This is relevant because the former is charitable activity (which can be carried out by a charity) and the later is not charitable activity but may be a means of raising funds for a charity.

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 is 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.

You also need to remember that the Friends’ group may be set up as a separate organisation and, if it is a charity, it will be very important to manage conflicts of interest between the views of those who run the Friends’ group and the vicar and the PCC. Quite often even where there is a separate organisation there is an assumption that the Friends’ group is almost a sub-committee of the PCC and subject to its direction, but this is not the case if it is a separately constituted group.

Here are some questions that might help to get the discussion started.

  • What are the problems facing the church building? It is a good idea to know properly what the condition of the church building is by commissioning a full building survey with more detail than a standard quinquennial inspection. Make sure your house is in order before you embark on any big project!


  • Think big. Take a long-term view and think strategically. Where do you all want the church to be in the near and long-term future? What is the masterplan? Does your PCC have a ‘bottom drawer’ project that it would wish 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 is 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 lacks? What do they want it to be? How might you engage them?


  • Have a building use agreement in place! If the Friends’ group is running operations from the church building there must be a formal written agreement in place, potentially a licence under faculty which sets out limitations and determines how proceeds are delivered for the support of the church. Your archdeacon should be consulted.


Setting up your group

If you have decided that there is 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.  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 sub­committee of the PCC with the vicar and churchwarden(s) as ex officio members (which is strongly recommended), while others are separate organisations registered with the Charities Commission. It is important to be clear about which option you are adopting as it will make a difference to your responsibility. The latter option is strongly recommended if you are going to be carrying out fundraising for specific projects as it provides greater transparency to third parties who may want to support the project. If you establish the Friends’ group as a charitable incorporated organisation, you can do this whatever your level of income. In all other cases you can only register as a charity once your income exceeds £5000 per annum. 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 and that you are able to manage appropriately any conflicts of interest.

Your vicar and members of the PCC ought to be part of the governing body. If they are not, then you need to ensure that the group can still function when there is any conflict of interest (i.e. if the group is deciding how to provide funds to the church).  If the Friends’ group is a sub-committee of the PCC (strongly recommended) then it is important to be clear as to what delegated authority the Friends’ group have and how they should report back to the PCC as the PCC will retain responsibility for the activities of the Friends’ group.

Whichever option you choose, it is 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? If you are a separate charity then you will need to have your own bank account which is under the responsibility of the committee of the Friends’ group.
  • Do you need your own treasurer? Again, if you are a separate group you may have a responsibility to prepare accounts and submit them to the Charity Commission. Remember that it is the PCC that has ultimate legal responsibility for the care, maintenance, repair and insurance of the church and it cannot be delegated. 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?  You need to consider whether it is appropriate for the Friends’ group to enter commercial arrangements (which is not recommended) or, more likely, whether it is appropriate to provide funding to the PCC as part of any arrangements that the PCC enters into.
  • Be transparent and accountable. Stipulate a term of office for members of the governing body and provide for regular meetings for the governing body in the constitution. Make sure there is someone tasked with providing agendas and writing up the minutes. Consider whether it is appropriate to have an annual AGM to appoint the members of the governing body and whether this should be open to all of the parish and/or the PCC, or just members of the Friends’ group. 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! In particular, if you are going to be registered as a separate charity you will need to distinguish between aims which are charitable (g. maintenance of the fabric of the church and beautification of the goods and ornaments used in the church) from activities that are carried out in order to raise funds to pursue charitable activities (e.g. networking, jumble sales, lectures and other events). Have an executive summary so that you can sell the organisation quickly and persuasively. It is 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.  It also should not just be a social club if it wants to be registered as a charity.
  • Who does what locally and what is 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 are good at and to tasks where they can bring the biggest benefit with the least outlay of time.
  • How will membership work? There is no one correct way of structuring membership, but it is 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 it be 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 cannot 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 do not under-sell the Friends and make sure any subscription covers the costs of membership (g. mailings and a newsletter) and includes a percentage for funds. When considering discounts, for example at the shop, remember that if the shop is run by the PCC then any arrangement will need to be negotiated with the PCC.

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 and 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 put time and effort into generating goodwill and interest at the outset then it is important not to dissipate either. Do not make a big noise and then go silent on your members as it will be very difficult to regain their interest. Think about setting up a website or adding a page to the existing parish website (but remember if you are a separate charity that you will need to display your own charity number on the page). Do not neglect the value of printed newsletters and annual reports either – receiving something tangible is important for fostering a sense of belonging in Friends who are not 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 are not major developments to report. Organise social events and entertainments to bring people together as a means of raising funds. The more the membership bonds, the more likely they are to give their time and money. Even if ticket sales do not bring in enormous sums of money, there may be dividends later on. However, make certain that you are not running events that lose money or fail to break even.
  • Emphasise the positive, play up your achievements. In the early stages go for quick wins and visible things (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 does not 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 do not give us your money”) as this is counter­productive. 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 cannot.
  • 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 do not be over-ambitious. You will probably be doing your work for the Friends in your free time (at first, at any rate), so there will 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 will do well.
  • Most importantly, always say thank you to Friends for their support! This really can not be over­emphasised.


  • 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. Make sure you have Gift Aid declarations to hand with all the relevant information that people need. Include them with renewal and subscription forms when you mail your members. If you are a separate charity be clear about the charity number for the Friends’ group.
  • Do not 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 are getting the VIP treatment, so write to them individually, give your communication with them a personal touch and offer them special benefits.

  • You probably will not 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 will need to concentrate on pump-priming. Do not be over-ambitious. It is important not to focus all your energies on a scheme which requires a big cash injection and possibly also lengthy consultation with the Diocesan Advisory 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. Make sure that the project is likely to get the necessary faculty before going too far.
  • Is your building worthy of listing or upgrading? Some churches built 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 is a good case for putting in an application to Historic England. Getting a building listed or upgraded can unlock all sorts of useful extra funding. But bear in mind that, in some cases, (for example removal of pews) having the building listed may actually make projects harder to get approval for even if the listing does unlock 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 National Lottery Heritage Fund about what you want to do, find out whether it is something they will support and how it links with their published 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 will not 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.
  • Possibly consider a legacy campaign for longer term projects.
  • Always make sure that you are clear what happens in the event that the appeal for funds fails to raise sufficient fund or raises too much money. In both cases, if the fundraising is for a specific project, then raising too much or too little money can have implications that need to be dealt with.  It is best to say we are raising funds for “Project A” but if we fail to raise sufficient money, or we raise more than we need, the funds will be used for the general purposes of the Friends’ group.  This avoids an awkward situation where a fundraising appeal fails and it is the necessary to give all the money back to the donors.

Funding bodies – some advice and useful links

There are many sources of funding open to organisations looking after historic places of worship. There are several schemes operated by the National Lottery for which non-urgent works to historic places of worship may be eligible. Early-stage advice on any of the Heritage Fund’s grant programmes can be gained by submitting a project inquiry form or expression of interest. The Lottery 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. Clear guidance is available online for eligible works.

The two different ways of structuring a Friends’ group

There are two main ways to structure a Friends’ group: either as an independent charity or as a sub-committee of the PCC.

With thanks to Susan Rennison, Liz Mullins and parishresources.org.uk.

Option 1: as a sub-committee of the PCC

This Friends’ group is set up as an initiative of the PCC and so is controlled by its officers. The PCC needs to pass a resolution to establish the sub-committee, which sets out its term of reference and the extent of any delegated authority. The Friends’ group sub-committee reports back regularly to the PCC and is fully accountable to it. The sub-committee organises the membership, services for members and events for fundraising. With this option the Friends’ group can either be established as a restricted fund just for the repair, maintenance and insurance of the fabric of the church, or can operate with a wider remit and raise money for general purposes and projects initiated by the PCC. It would be normal for the sub-committee to include at least two or three members of the PCC to ensure that the PCC retain full oversight.


  • Under full authority of the PCC, so less likelihood of the aims or interests of the parish and Friends’ group diverging.
  • Automatically enjoys charitable status as part of the PCC and is therefore automatically tax efficient for donations and subscriptions through Gift Aid paid to the PCC.
  • Requires no separate constitution, AGM etc. so simpler, easier and less time-consuming to establish and run.
  • Anyone from the PCC can be co-opted to serve on the sub-committee.
  • Can create its own list of members.


  • The type of Patron/Chairman likely to attract support from the wider community and support from donors may not be interested in serving on a ‘branch committee’ of the PCC.
  • Not easy to market to the wider community as a secular organisation, distinct from the religious life of the parish.
  • Yet another activity for the church family to organise.
  • Officers/members of the Friends’ group cannot be co-opted as members of the PCC unless they’re on the electoral roll.
  • The PCC is fully responsible for the receipt and expenditure of funds.
  • The Friends’ group has no executive powers for decisions on how money is spent.
  • The Friends’ group has no voting rights on the PCC.
  • If the PCC is not currently registered as a charity because its income is below the threshold for compulsory registration, the Friends’ group will not have any charity number to use. This can make it harder to raise funds from grant funders who expect to see a charity number.

Option 2: as an independent charity

The Friends’ group is established as an independent organisation with charitable status and its own constitution, officers and funds, which exists to help maintain the church building and to raise funds for that purpose.


  • Can find it easier to attract support from the wider community because it is separate from the religious activity of the church.
  • Can find it easier to persuade a patron or trustees from outside the church to take office or get involved because it is a distinct entity.
  • Does not create an additional workload for the incumbent or PCC.
  • Is tax efficient for donations and subscriptions paid through Gift Aid.
  • It can apply for its own charity number (if set up as a charitable incorporated organisation or its income is over £5000) which will make applications for grant funding easier.


  • Takes longer and requires more effort to set up because it needs a separate constitution, AGM, bank accounts and officers and has to be able to demonstrate public benefit when it registers for charitable status (and thereby obtains the right to Gift Aid).
  • Is subject to the regulations of the Charity Commission and so the Executive Committee has all the liabilities and responsibilities of charity trustees (for example, annual reports and accounts have to be submitted) which can be time-consuming (although of course the PCC are themselves charity trustees and subject o these liabilities and responsibilities).
  • Cannot assume control from the PCC over work carried out on the building and there will be a need to manage disagreements over how works should be carried out with funds.
  • The PCC has no say in how the Friends spend their funds. If it wants financial assistance from the Friends then it has to apply to them and if the Friends’ priorities are different to its own then it may be refused, hence;
  • There is a potential for conflict between the Friends and the PCC over the needs of mission and ministry, and the preservation and maintenance of the building. There will be a need to properly manage conflicts of interest of those members of the PCC/committee of the Friends’ group who are part of both groups.
  • It is not a foregone conclusion that charitable status will be granted. If the Friends’ group’s objectives are deemed not to have public benefit by the Charities Commission (for example, if they are focused very much on social activity and networking) then it could be classified as a club existing for the benefit of its members which gives donations to the church. It would then be liable for tax on the income from its activities, as well as for the deduction of tax at source on any interest earned on its bank accounts.

(Guidance updated December 2020)

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