I’ve been neglecting this page in 2021…It’s been a busy year.
Throughout this year I have spent a great deal of time working in a voluntary capacity alongside my professional projects. In this Blog I reflect on using my skills to bid for and manage a £24,400 Cultural Recovery Fund project in a voluntary capacity.
I have been Churchwarden of All Saints’ Church, Westbury since 2019. It’s been a steep learning curve. The role of Churchwarden is an ancient one and is the senior lay (non-ordained) role in a congregation.
The role has taken on a new meaning during the Covid 19 pandemic with endless checking of government and Church of England websites to remain up to date with the latest guidance followed by a review of risk assessments and procedures. My digital skills have improved and the sudden disappearance of volunteers (as many were in the “vulnerable” category) has put a lot of pressure on the younger members of the congregation including myself.
Our finances are precarious at the best of times but the pandemic hit our fundraising opportunities hard. We didn’t qualify for any of the grants from either national or local government. So when the Cultural Recovery Fund Round 2 was announced and the ChurchCare team at the Church of England encouraged churches to apply I thought I’d use my professional skills to see if we could seek support to help the Church reopen after the long period of closure.
I know from talking to other colleagues that I’m not the only one who struggled to put together a well thought out proposal in the short time scale allowed. The tight deadline meant that it was tough to really work out the priorities on the long list of things that we would like to do but in the normal run of things simply don’t have the capital to implement. Church communities don’t move quickly as a rule and it was difficult to get others in the leadership team to move fast and make quick decisions. Then we had to ask contractors to supply prices on sketchy briefs and ask them to work superfast when there was no certainty of getting any money at all.
Being closed for an extended period of time meant that our usual cleaning hadn’t been taking place and the building was getting damp due to lack of use, exacerbated by various leaky patches on our roof and rainwater goods that had seen better days. We had also missed the usual annual checks like fire extinguisher and boiler servicing. With the resumption of ‘normal life’ on the horizon and a return to daily opening we were conscious that a lot of work needed to be done before we could be sure that visitors would see us at our best and we were safe to open.
We were also conscious that we needed to ‘up our game’ on what we offered visitors and find ways to diversify our income from beyond our congregation to the wider community and visitors to our town. We hoped that due to the expected rise in domestic holidays and ‘staycations’ that we might see more visitors to our small market town. All Saints’ Church is the only Grade I listed building in Westbury and the oldest, with origins dating back to Saxon times and the current building dating from the 13th Century onwards.
Cut a long story short and after several days of work and lots of tearing of hair putting the bid together it was submitted and to our delight (and a certain amount of trepidation) we were successful in receiving a grant of £24,400.
Again, in common with many others it was frustrating to get official permission so late. Our ‘permission to start’ email was received on 14 April – 2 weeks into the 12 week period that the grant monies were supposed to be spent in.
What was the money for?
- servicing the boiler
- portable appliance testing
- servicing the fire extinguishers
- servicing and maintaining our CCTV system
- replacing the lead on 6 bays on the roof
- unblocking, repairing, replacing and repainting all our rainwater goods
- having the organ retuned after 18 months of reduced use
- a skip to get rid of 20+ years worth of accumulated clutter
- dry cleaning our curtains
- shelving to enable us to reorganise essential stuff like cleaning materials away from the visitor route
Improving the visitor experience
- replacing information panels
- producing welcome leaflet
- attractive new external signage
- new internal signage boards
Improving our long term financial sustainability
- installing a contactless pay station
- creating literature asking for financial support
Engaging with a wider range of people
We also wanted to find ways to draw a wider range of people into the building and the grant was the stimulus to finding ways to engage a wider range of people in our activities
We advertised on social media and the local paper for volunteers to help with our spring cleaning events and around a dozen people answered the call.
We invited volunteers to help out with our Open Day to celebrate the reopening of the church after the final lifting of restrictions in July 2021. The Rotary Club offered their support to support with stewarding of our popular Tower Tours. Over 100 people came in to explore the building and venture into the bell ringing chamber.
We also reached out to the Wiltshire Medieval Graffiti Survey who are an off shoot of the Wiltshire Museum’s Archaeological Field Group. They welcome volunteers to assist with the surveying and recording. We had over a dozen people attending at each of their two sessions which took place in June and October 2021. A fascinating way of engaging people with the building providing them with privileged access from the top of the tower to the cellar!
A lecture in November attracted 50 people to hear about the initial findings of the Survey and we hope to welcome them back in 2022.
Due to the short time scale given to spend the grant monies the work had to be shared around. There were some items that I would have liked to have had more input into. I just couldn’t provide the time as I was juggling paid commitments (another CRF funded project) and so had to trust others to do the work. Clear instruction and regular contact ensured deadlines were (nearly) met.
You can only do what you can do. The pressure that the time scale put on us and the very last minute (a week before the deadline) reprieve and extension allowed was very stressful, particularly when undertaking the role as a volunteer and juggling other responsibilities. I was working with volunteers who had no experience of projects like this so I had to accept that they were doing the best that could and just help guide them through the process.
Because the bid was produced so quickly there wasn’t time to really think about the details of our project and so for example when new ideas emerged such as what media we could use for our information panels we had to be responsive, check prices and options, review the budget and roll with it. We had problems with our preferred roofer dropping out at the last minute and to move fast to get the contract tied down before the end of June deadline. Costings for various elements of the work by necessity had been estimated and so there was constant re-budgeting and review of work that could be completed with the funds available. The continuing uncertainty over the Covid situation and what was and wasn’t permitted meant that everything had to be planned with the knowledge that it could all change at the last minute.
As the work was divided out amongst the various volunteers, regular get togethers either on Zoom or socially distanced in person helped us to keep in touch with progress. Regular written updates from myself as project manager helped to keep everyone informed, on track and conscious of deadlines.
I was very lucky to have one or two really great people in our volunteer team who supported me during the process and took on discrete elements of the project. It was also good to work with trusted professionals who you could rely to get on with the work and were patient with our volunteers who had not done this kind of work before.
We had a willing band of volunteer labour which enabled us to deliver so much more than the monetary value of the grant. For example:
- several weekend work parties including a morning spent filling the skip
- those who took photographs and wrote the text for our new information panels
- the 3 volunteers who spent a day installing our two new external noticeboards
- the time given by one volunteer to project manage the roof and rainwater goods works.
Project managing under pressure
I know that all involved in the CRF grant programme were working under pressure at a difficult time. My case officer has been very responsive and helpful throughout the process. However, I know that I am not the only person who found the tight timescale extremely stressful. The pressure was particularly heavy on groups like ours that were volunteer led. The very late reprieve meant that decisions were made very quickly in order to meet the original timescale and better ones might have been made if the decision to extend the deadline had been communicated earlier.
Personally the project has helped improve my bid writing and increased my experience of delivering this kind of project working entirely with volunteers. It’s helped me to improve my delegation skills and given me more patience!
As Churchwarden I am tremendously grateful for the huge injection of cash into our church that the CRF grant provided.
- It has enabled long overdue maintenance works to be completed
- It has enabled us to invest in the infrastructure to increase our long term sustainability such as the contactless giving station. We would have found the cost of the unit hard to justify if it hadn’t been for the grant
- We have attractive information banners to help visitors explore our church building
- We have smart new noticeboards at the entrance to our church precinct to welcome visitors and show that we are a thriving community. These also include QR codes linking to our online giving platform
- We have found new opportunities to encourage and welcome members beyond our church community into the building
I know that the volunteers involved found it very hard work as we moved at a much faster pace than is normal for us but it has given us confidence as a community to consider applying for more project funding in the future. We had fun and ate a good deal of cake.
However, I think we would be more cautious with this kind of short timescale programme both in terms of the application process and delivery of the project itself because of the pressure it placed on those doing the work alongside carrying out ‘normal’ duties.
All our objectives were met and we managed to squeeze in more than originally planned due to the difficulties of accurate costing in the original bid. We hope (and pray) that it will put us in a good position as we all continue to emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic.
Time then, all things considered, that was well spent.