More churches should extend ministry beyond the church walls to meet unmet community needs


Churches are omnipresent in communities around the United States. Many are closed except for Sunday and mid-week services; however, congregations can do more to meet community needs by extending ministry beyond the church walls. 

We all have needs in our lives.  In one area we might be excelling, but in another we might be failing miserably.  As soon as we think that we have taken care of one need, another one props up.  We have different levels of needs.  We have basic needs, like the need for food, the need for water, the need for shelter.  Once these needs are met then the need for safety because important to us.  Once our basic needs and the need for safety are met, then we all have the need for belongingness and the need for love.  Then there is our need to be esteemed by others.  Finally, we have the need to realize our full potential or self-actualization.  Some of us never get to this level because we are bogged down by basic needs.  So, for us and the people in our community to realize our full potential, we must meet basic needs.  

In His manifesto at the beginning of His ministry, after He was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, Jesus declared, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.” (Luke 4:18 KJV)

Christians are disciples of Jesus and this scripture applies to us. Christians have been anointed to meet the needs.  We are anointed to do ministry, not to become spiritually obese.  Yes, our first priority is the preaching of the gospel and the worship and praise of almighty God, but these practices fuel us for ministry.  The brokenhearted need to be healed; the captives need to be delivered; the blind need to regain their sight; and those that are bruised need to be set free!

Jesus also said that…

“For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Mat 25:35-40 KJV)  

These are things that we can all do.  Regardless of our ability, regardless of our education, regardless of our income level…

  • We can feed the hungry.
  • We can help a stranger.
  • We can clothe the naked.
  • We can visit the sick.
  • We can visit those that are in prison.

As much as we do these acts unto those around us that are in need, we do them unto Jesus Christ. The body of Christ has to personally take care of others that are in need!  The church has to be relevant.  The church cannot hand over all of this responsibility to the government!

I spent 18 years of my life leading a faith-motivated, community-based nonprofit organization in Dunbar, West Virginia. As a trained chemical engineer, nonprofit management was not my original career but my passion. Even though I was often stressed from working long hours, I earned less than my peers in the for-profit world, and I was constantly in fundraising mode while managing rejections to funding requests; I felt fulfilled. Through it all, the church was our primary investor and guarantor. The church actually paid my salary for the first few years of operation. My nonprofit years prepared me for my current career in philanthropy. 

I have captured some keys to success for churches thinking of starting a nonprofit to serve their communities. By nonprofit, I mean a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt or charitable organization. According to the Internal Revenue Service, an organization must be organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes to be tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Therefore, none of its earnings may inure any private shareholder or individual. For example, suppose the organization engages in an excess benefit transaction with a person having substantial influence over the organization. In that case, the IRS may impose an excise tax on the person and any organization managers agreeing to the transaction. 

1. Establish the need before starting a new organization or program.

Never start a new community program or nonprofit organization for glory or just a desire to “help people.” Instead, create a new program or nonprofit organization to meet specific community needs. 

need is a discrepancy or gap between what is and what should be. Unfortunately, there are never enough resources to meet all the needs in a community. However, nonprofits play a vital role in closing some of the gaps. Everyday needs addressed by community-based nonprofits include the following:

  • Basic Human Needs – shelters and housing programs for unhoused people; meal programs and food pantries; utility assistance programs
  • Health – health and dental care access through community health centers; mental health centers; healthy food access in food deserts through urban farms, farmers markets, and local grocery stores; green spaces, playgrounds, and exercise facilities; drug prevention and treatment programs
  • Education – early childhood education programs; out-of-school time programs; workforce development programs; scholarship and tuition assistance programs; arts and culture programs
  • Community Economic Development – housing counseling, homebuyer education, and housing development; credit counseling; small business loans and technical assistance; community beautification.
  • Arts – community festivals; visual and performance arts programs. 

Program planners conduct needs assessments to help identify and select the appropriate intervention to effectuate a certain level of change. By definition, a needs assessment is a systematic set of procedures used to determine needs, examine their nature and causes, and set priorities for future action. Establishing the conditions early in the process makes it easy to build a case for support when you begin your funding search.

Before starting a new program or nonprofit organization, consider conducting a needs assessment to evaluate the potential market for your services:

  • Study data from reliable sources to quantify the problem you are attempting to address. Click here for an extensive list of data sources.
  • Research whether the program you would like to implement is already available in the community you intend to serve and explore collaboration.
  • Speak to residents about what they see as their community needs.
  • Speak to existing nonprofits already in the service area as they could be potential referral sources.
  • Speak with local philanthropic organizations and civic officials about what they see from their vantage point.
  • Conduct focus groups with people who are likely to benefit from the program/organization.

In my early foray into community development work, Helena Lee introduced me to the Communities that Care (CTC) Model through the local Safe and Drug-Free Communities initiative. Our community team used this model to conduct a risk and resource assessment, the results of which guided our youth programming and taught us a sound approach to designing community programming. Click here for a website dedicated to the CTC Model.

2. Get the right people on the team. 

Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results. – Andrew Carnegie

Churches can make social impact when they bring the right people come together and focus like a laser beam on a challenge. Be deliberate and strategic as you assemble your team. Get the right team members in the correct positions for new organizations before developing the mission and vision. Leaders of existing organizations should take the time necessary to identify new team members who will fit the organizational culture and complement the existing team. Your team includes board members, staff, and volunteers. These stakeholders must subscribe to the mission and vision of the organization and commit to its success. In addition, they should have a heart for the people they intend to serve. 

Be sure to consider diversity, equity, and inclusion in the process. Research has shown that diverse teams produce more significant outcomes. Being mindful of diversity, equity, and inclusion during the organization building phase will reap great rewards later on your journey.

Diversity is the representation of all varied identities and differences. It includes all the ways in which people differ, encompassing the different characteristics that make one individual or group different from another. Characteristics include race, ethnicity, gender, age, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, marital status, language, and physical appearance. Diversity in professions/skills is also recommended for nonprofit boards of directors. Ideally, nonprofit boards should include people from the following disciplines: law, accounting, marketing, government, clergy, and communications.

Equity is freedom from bias or favoritism. It is the fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. Improving equity involves increasing justice and fairness within the procedures and processes of your organization, as well as in your distribution of resources. 

Inclusion is the act of creating environments in which any individual or group can feel welcomed, respected, supported, and valued to participate fully. An inclusive and welcoming climate embraces differences and respects all people in words and actions. While an inclusive group is diverse, a diverse group is not always inclusive. Therefore, strive always to be inclusive.

An effective team is comprised of people with different skills and different personality types. For example, consider team members who are:

  • Results-oriented. Team members who naturally organize work and take charge; tend to be socially self-confident, competitive, and energetic.
  • Relationship-focused. Team members who naturally focus on relationships, are attuned to others’ feelings, and are good at building cohesion; tend to be warm, diplomatic, and approachable.
  • Process and rule followers. Team members who pay attention to details, processes, and rules; tend to be reliable, organized, and conscientious.
  • Innovative and disruptive thinkers. Team members who naturally focus on innovation, anticipate problems, and recognize when the team needs to change; tend to be imaginative, curious, and open to new experiences.
  • Pragmatic. Practical team members, hard-headed challengers of ideas and theories; tend to be prudent, emotionally stable, and level-headed.

Click here for an insightful Harvard Business Review article with more information on personality types. There are many personality type assessments. However, True Colors is one of the simplest that I have completed. Click here for more information.

3. Diversify your funding sources.

As the old saying goes, “do not put all of your eggs in one basket.” Funding fluctuations stress programs and organizations and make it difficult to provide consistent quality services. High-performing staff may leave or be laid off if funding shortfalls are anticipated. No one likes to be in this kind of environment. This reality emphasizes the need to secure funding from diverse sources to sustain your efforts. Sources could include the following:

  • Federal government agencies (refer to
  • State government agencies 
  • National foundations (
  • Regional foundations
  • Community foundations (including donor-advised and donor-designated funds)
  • Family foundations
  • Corporate philanthropies
  • Businesses/Corporations
  • Events (e.g., galas, golf tournaments, etc.)
  • Giving circles
  • Service clubs and associations
  • Religious organizations 
  • Workplace campaigns (e.g., United Way)
  • Fees for services
  • Individuals

Federal government agencies usually offer the most significant grants. However, it is essential not to rely on these support sources solely and build local funding relationships. Specific federal government funding streams are often linked to a particular political administration. Be mindful of this as you plan. For example, faith-based initiatives were once in vogue during the George W. Bush administration. One rarely hears this term anymore.

Planning for the sustainability of funding should be a strategic process that addresses the long-term needs of your program and organization. The sources of funds to meet your budget will need adjustments based on changing trends in economic and political cycles. Therefore, a defined fundraising plan with an adaptive timeframe that maintains critical infrastructure is essential for success. Click here for a sample of a fundraising plan that I have used over the years.

The church was my nonprofit’s primary guarantor. Our early grants were reimbursable which meant that we had to spend funds and wait to be reimbursed, which could be six to weeks later. Cash flow was often challenging during these years, but God supplied our needs, just in time.

4. Tell your story.

Make time to tell your story and control the narrative about your program. Often, nonprofit leaders are so swamped doing the work and addressing needs that they forget to pause and tell their stories. I know from experience that this is hard to balance, but it should be a priority. Here are three tips for telling your story.

Cast a Big Vision. Your nonprofit may only be working in a tiny corner of a small town, but for the people you serve, your work is life changing. When telling your nonprofit story, show people the lives you have changed, the outcomes you have achieved, and the work that would be possible if you had more resources at your disposal. 

Appeal to Core Human Values. Regardless of our differences, we all care about the same things like safety, freedom, good health, and a better life for our children. So, in addition to showcasing the features of your work, such as how many research studies you run or the number of hot meals you serve each day, focus on the benefits of your work—the core human values. The best way to do this is to make sure stakeholders understand the big picture about your work. For example, if your nonprofit is providing home heating assistance, be sure to tell stakeholders that you are keeping families safe from the cold and allowing them to live healthy, comfortable lives. Yes, you can tell stakeholders about your programs, but be sure they understand the big vision behind your work: to keep families warm and healthy.

Use Real Examples and Outcomes. Statistics and outcomes do have their place in your nonprofit’s story, but primarily as support for your overall, big picture vision focused on one or more core human values. When using statistics and discussing outcomes, one of the best things you can do is to put a face on the numbers by relating them to real-life examples and stories about your work. For example, if you are telling stakeholders about the number of scholarships you gave out this past year, highlight the story of someone who received your scholarship. Nonprofit communications build an emotional connection with the donor. Real-world examples, stories, and outcomes are a great way to show how your work has changed lives.

5. Develop partnerships and community support.

Partnership is not a posture, but a process – a continuous process that grows stronger each year as we devote ourselves to common tasks – John F. Kennedy

Cultivating connections between a program and community stakeholders is key to success. A nonprofit cannot exist on an island by itself. Partnerships build synergy. Synergistic outcomes result from the effectiveness of leadership, administration, and management, the efficiency of the alliance, and the sufficiency of resources. A synergistic collaboration involves:

  • recruiting a broad range of stakeholders to the group;
  • motivating participants to work together by articulating common goals;
  • empowering the group with a collaborative process to address problems; and
  • encouraging group members to develop relationships with one another and engage in an ongoing discourse (Lasker & Weiss, 2003).

Partners play an important role in sustainability and success in several ways:

  1. They can connect an organization to more significant resources or expertise. They can also complement an organization’s services and serve as an advocate.
  2. Partners can help rally the community around an initiative and its desired outcomes.
  3. Partners can be an organization’s champions and help to tell its story. 

I recommend developing a strategic partnership approach with partners across sectors, including alliances among private, public, and philanthropic organizations, not when you need them for a funding proposal but as you design your program. For example, one of the most extensive nonprofit programs I ran was a responsible fatherhood program. Our partners included: Federal funding agency; State Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation; State Workforce Offices; State Child Support Enforcement Offices; Churches; 2-year and 4-year Colleges and Universities; Career and Technical Colleges; and Employers.

6. Evaluate your efforts.

Everything that can be counted doesn’t necessary count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted – Albert Einstein

Simply put, program evaluation is assessing program operations and results to determine effectiveness and impact. If you aren’t achieving the results you expect based on your program design, changes may be necessary. Program evaluation helps keep a program on track with desired outputs and outcomes. 

The National Council of Nonprofits and its state association network encourage nonprofits to embrace a culture that supports evaluating the difference your nonprofit is making. This requires first identifying “what does success look like?” Then making a plan that will get you there and collecting information along the way to evaluate whether your nonprofit’s progress is actually getting you closer to success. Finally, it’s important also to communicate what you are discovering, and use those lessons to continuously improve performance. All of this is referred to variously as, “outcomes measurement,” or “performance management,” or simply, “evaluation.”

I highly recommend using a logic model to guide your program design and evaluation. Click here for a logic model I created for the nonprofit I ran for 18 years. A logic model is a systematic and visual way to present and share your understanding of the relationships among the resources you have to operate your program, the activities you plan, and the changes or results you hope to achieve. The term logic model is frequently used interchangeably with program theory in the evaluation field. Logic models can alternatively be referred to as theory because they describe how a program works and to what end. Click here for the logic model design guide from the Kellogg Foundation.

7. Stay current on sector developments

Nonprofit leaders should always have an annual professional development budget. Attending conferences, reading sector publications and relevant books, joining online peer groups, etc., allow you to network with your peers and learn about best practices and developments in your sector. I believe in being a life-long learner. Aspects of your work are constantly changing, and you want to ensure that you are on the cutting edge.

8. Keep your word

When you make a commitment, you build hope. When you keep it, you build trust.

Although following through on your commitments sounds simple, it’s a habit that can make or break your credibility as a nonprofit leader. I started as a new, Black nonprofit leader with limited sector experience, working in a poor neighborhood at an organization started by a small church. I earned respect and built trust by keeping my word and following through when I committed. Even though I felt scrutinized by people with power, I used the challenge as an opportunity to show naysayers what I could achieve.

9. Make continuous improvement a core value

Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection – Mark Twain

Continuous improvement is an ongoing effort to improve all aspects of your organization. These aspects could include your operational processes, services, and products. Regularly reviewing how you work and your purpose will keep you on the cutting edge. Don’t just go through the motions year after year without considering ways to improve and refine. Take a pulse of your organization and be willing to add or subtract as needed. Getting feedback from internal and external stakeholders is one way of gathering information. The feedback process could be formal, for example, an anonymous survey administered by a third party or a series of conversations.

10. Develop and implement a strategic plan

But all things should be done decently and in order – I Corinthians 14:40

All activities your nonprofit is engaged in should align with an overarching strategic plan. Strategic planning is the glue that holds program operations and sustainability efforts together. Without a strategic direction and long-term desired outcomes, nonprofits find themselves only reacting to day-to-day demands. 

Strategic plans come in various formats. I have even been a part of a strategic planning process based on a logic model design. In general, strategic planning is an organization’s process of defining its purpose and making decisions on allocating its resources accordingly. Critical components of a strategic plan are vision, mission, desired outcomes (or goals and objectives), and an action plan.

I recommend retaining a third party to facilitate your strategic planning process and secure funding from a funding partner to pay for it.

11. Get professional help with operations.

Community-based nonprofits are usually established to meet pressing community needs, and their staff work tirelessly to pursue their purpose. However, your typical nonprofit will not have internal professional support like a human resources or accounting department. Therefore, retaining external support in these key roles is essential for success.

I highly recommend not trying to do it all alone when you’re a new or small nonprofit. Getting the support you need with operations while focusing on your essential services and mission will maximize your impact. Here are some outsourcing options to consider:

  • Payroll – Payroll Taxes (941 Filings);
  • Property Tax/Business Tax Filings;
  • Bookkeeping;
  • Controller/CFO Services;
  • QuickBooks Support;
  • Human Resources Support; and
  • Grant Accounting/Reporting.

I vividly remember the feeling of relief that I experienced after retaining a Preferred Employer Organization (PEO) to handle our nonprofit’s payroll, human resource management, risk management support, and benefits administration. We were ramping up for a new program and needed to add over 20 team members. I felt overwhelmed. Working with a PEO helped to dissipate my stress. They helped build our capacity and streamline our operations for a modest fee.

12. Watch your finances with eagle eyes.

For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Luke 14:28-30

The eagle eye is among the sharpest in the animal kingdom, with an eyesight estimated at 4 to 8 times stronger than the average human. This is the level of intensity you should focus on your finances. Establish a robust financial management system to reduce the likelihood of fraudulent activities. Fraud can result in financial and credibility losses to an organization. 

Internal controls are critical. These controls are the mechanisms, rules, and procedures implemented by an organization to ensure financial and accounting information integrity, promote accountability, and prevent fraud.

Kelly Shafer, a Certified Public Accountant with Suttle and Stalnaker, shared the following ways an organization can strengthen internal controls:

  • Segregate duties – don’t have the same person open the mail, prepare deposits, take the deposit to the bank, and record the transaction
  • Only allow employees access to areas they need to perform their job
  • An employee who can sign checks should not also have exclusive access to the check stock
  • Require dual signatures on checks
  • Have monetary authorization limits
  • Avoid signature stamps
  • Monthly bank statements should be mailed directly to a board member for review or provide access to online banking
  • Review credit card charges and reconcile the monthly statement
  • If using electronic approvals, keep a paper trail (emails)
  • Cross-train employees
  • Require annual vacations
  • Conduct background checks
  • Have annual audit/review
  • Establish a fraud tip line

Remember, internal controls protect an organization as well as its employees.

13. Build a reserve fund.

Some community-based nonprofits experience funding fluctuations from time to time, disrupting their operations. Building a reserve fund that can be accessed during these uncertain times is vital to sustainability. A reserve of at least six months of the organization’s annual operating budget is ideal. 

Building this reserve will not be easy for many, but it is definitely worth the effort to tuck away as much as you can to sustain your organization. You can establish your fund at a local community foundation or other financial institution that offers a generous rate of return.

14. Persist when stumbling blocks appear.

Success is not the absence of failure, but it’s persistence through failure – Aisha Tyler.

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened – Luke 11:9-10.

Nonprofit work is hard work; nevertheless, I have found that working in the nonprofit sector to uplift humankind is fulfilling and sets my soul on fire. Be sure that you feel a special calling to this work before considering it a career, as the journey will not be easy. As you strive to do the best job possible, inevitably some funding proposals will be rejected, some staff will disappoint you, and some clients will become upset. 

Through it all, you will have to persist, insist, and stay the course to positively impact your community. It takes a certain tenacity to thrive in the nonprofit sector. Successful organizations are led by leaders who use stumbling blocks as stepping stones to better serve and advocate for those in need.

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