Quantifiable, results-based program budgets

9/21/2015

By Dr. Derek McAleer, Director of Administrative Services

I’ve been involved in creating church budgets since the mid-1970s. Like many of you, I have seen the highs and lows of income, expenses, planning, and inspiration. I’ve seen new programs budgeted which had great impact on people’s lives. I’ve seen groups that haven’t spent their budgets in three years throw major fits when it was suggested their budgets be reduced. I’ve seen churches simply add new salary and apportionment figures to last year’s budget and move on, without ever looking at what impact they were having for the funds they spent. But I have also served in some non-local-church areas and seen how budgeting can be driven by results-based programming. More and more I conclude that churches should consider this approach.

What is Results-Based Programming?

Results-based programming is just what it says – when you allocate budget resources, you expect results. You consider what the results you have gotten for the funding in the past are, and what the projected results for next year’s spending are. If the results don’t justify the allocation, then further exploration is needed.

Is this biblical? Well, the fig tree that Jesus condemned for failure to bear fruit did not like it at all! The goats condemned for failure to serve the least of these were not thrilled with this approach. The vineyard of Isaiah 5 had numerous reasons why it had not born cultivated grapes. None of these reasons for poor results were acceptable to God! Will our reasons for poor results be any more acceptable? The servant who buried the master’s talent in the ground never understood why the Master did not find that acceptable. His failure to understand did not sway the Master at all.

One key factor to good results-impact based reviews is timeliness. The most effective programs review events soon after they happen. They ask, “What went well? What problems cropped up? What did we have to adjust on the fly? How can next time be improved?” These thoughts should be captured soon after events, while they are fresh on people’s minds. Get the details. Next year, when first planning the event, pull out last year’s review to refresh your memory of how you wanted to adjust and improve.

Examples

One regional body considered what results their college-ministries funding was getting. They concluded that they were spending $1 million to reach 900 students. It seemed a lot of money for those results. What could they do to increase the results they were getting? Might they revise their programming to get more results for fewer funds? They made some big changes. Now they are spending $75,000 to reach 1,800 students. They aren’t where they want to be – but they have doubled the number of students they are reaching, because they looked at the results! Plus, the $925,000 they saved could be invested in other ministries!

One local church looked at what they were spending on ministries to senior citizens. They budgeted $2,500 a year and had about 10 people regularly involved. The money wasn’t so much, but they knew there were more senior citizens not being reached. So they took the same money and used it in different ways. Now they have 30 persons involved in their senior citizens’ ministry for the same $2,500.

So often we get into ruts with our budgeting where, if the amount requested doesn’t increase, it doesn’t really get examined. But many times if we look not just at the budget requested, but at the results achieved and the results expected, we begin to see a different picture. 

If the budgeting process is changed to ask 1) amount requested, 2) results last year, and 3) results expected this year, then those who must allocate the funds for ministries in the church can get a realistic picture of the impact their church is having and might have. If we actually compare results last year with the results that were expected last year, we have opportunity to see if our programming is really performing as we think, and consider how to improve it.

Not So New

This is not such a new idea. Every small business owner does this regularly. You look at the money you are spending, and you decide if you could spend that same amount differently to get more results, or if you have it allocated well as is.

I can immediately hear the moans of, “But we’re just a small church …,” as if that somehow excuses us from being responsible to the Master. Small- and mid-sized churches can do this just as easily as large churches – and it may be more beneficial. Just as a single-owner, one-or-two employee business does this kind of thinking regularly, small churches can. All it takes is a willingness to ask questions about results and to think about doing some things differently. 

The Real Benefit

It is possible that moving to results-based programming will allow you to decrease some program spending, but that is not the main benefit. The real benefit is that it shifts the focus from “What are we spending?” to “What impact are we having?” Far too few churches ever evaluate impact and results. If the event went off without major complication and people enjoyed themselves, then it was “successful.” And so our youth ministries dwindle, our Sunday schools decrease, and our young people stay away in droves while our spending moves forward undeterred. Looking at results and impact would have someone raising questions about how we might spend the same dollars more effectively.

Expected Difficulties

You can expect some difficulties with this new approach: 

  • Inertia is a perennial issue – it is hard to get anything moving in a new direction!
  • The concept that results matter will be challenged. Church folk like to talk about “unmeasurable” “spiritual” benefits, “People are growing deeper” stuff. This simply put up fog which obscures reality. How do you know people are growing deeper? Are they attending more? Giving more? Volunteering outside of the church more? If you cannot say how you know it is happening, then it likely is little more than a fond feeling. Maybe there is a Bible verse about how fond feelings are what matters.
  • Time is a real problem. Considering results takes time and energy. You can’t do your church budget in one meeting if you want to look at results. It will take planning.
  • Favoritism and church politics are almost guaranteed to come into play. Do not be naïve; people will battle to keep their funding and programming just as it is. Folks who are not achieving results do not want accountability to anyone else, and will challenge those who seek accountability. But do not let this deter you – we will all give an account before God for what we have done. Results matter to God!
How to Begin?

This year, why not set up one or two areas where you are going to ask about results and investigate further? Choose areas where your leaders have the courage and personal stability to accept questioning and look for ways to improve. Use them as a test case to learn how to do results-based programming. Next year, add a few areas. Over the next three to four years, you can review most of the programming areas of your church in this manner. It’s even better if your church board or church council meetings have time to ask about the results of programming and the impact of your ministry. Leaders whose areas have not yet been formally asked to do a results/impact survey will learn the language, and often begin to think along those ways as they handle events.

So take the plunge. Look at the money you are spending on ministry in the name of Christ, and ask the simple question, “What are the results of our spending? What impact are we having?” Answering this one question will start you on the road to significant impact for the cause of Jesus Christ!

Dr. Derek W. McAleer is the Director of Administrative Services for the South Georgia Annual Conference.