Activate Space, a website and app that helps congregations connect with groups looking for affordable community space, received one of the biggest grants ever awarded by the United Church Foundation this spring.
The Foundation’s Seeds of Hope granting program awarded 31 grants, including $50,000 to Jordana Wright to develop an online marketplace for renting church spaces, which could help the United Church sustain itself and save its properties.
“People don’t realize that these buildings hold the social safety net in place in so many ways,” Wright says, noting that when a church is shuttered, it is not only the congregation that suffers, but all the organizations using the building who could not otherwise afford space in the communities they serve.
The Seeds of Hope granting program supports projects that address environmental and social justice issues, look at new ways to deliver ministry and facilitate the experience of faith and spirituality. Based on principles from the world of trust-based philanthropy, the United Church of Canada Foundation has recently begun piloting a new model of granting which seeks not just to fund innovative projects but to closely listen to grantees and help them along the way.
During COVID, the Foundation received many technology-related grant applications from churches that needed to upgrade their streaming or video-recording capabilities to adapt to the pandemic. But according to Foundation leader Erik Lo Forte, this grant was awarded because the project was “brand new.”
Plus, “a young vibrant leader like Jordana is just so refreshing to get behind,” he says.
“People like me usually have to go to private sector investors,” says Wright, explaining that typically that would mean growing the platform “at all costs,” then selling it.
“That doesn’t align with the social good I want to do,” she says of Activate Space’s mission to preserve faith buildings.
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Though Lo Forte says that the Foundation will continue to follow the traditional granting model as well, he notes that it is rooted in “colonialistic practices” that can inadvertently reinforce systems of oppression and power. Trust-based philanthropy tries to address power imbalances between funders and grantees through mutually accountable collaborative relationships.
“We’ve always been open and welcome to collaboration in a partnership,” says Lo Forte. “This is a more deliberate approach,” however, that involves both listening to the grantee’s needs and “recognizing that they are the professionals and experts in what they’re trying to do.”
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“Activate Space gives us an opportunity to maybe connect with [potential renters] that we wouldn’t have noticed before or for them to connect with us,” says Rev. Norm Seli of Jubilee United in Toronto of the platform’s potential to help churches imagine new uses for their spaces. He likens it to the way that Jubilee United was scouted as a filming location for the television series, Orphan Black.
“I love that they see a thing that I didn’t see,” he says. “Activate Space helps open up our minds to other possibilities.”
Wright, who founded the social enterprise in 2017, says the funding will help her develop the new platforms and remove much of the friction from the largely analog United Church tradition of sharing space. Part of that vision includes developing a user-friendly blanket rental insurance policy like that of AirBnB’s, which covers both parties and is seamlessly administered through an online booking process.
The Activate Space rental site is a new initiative involving a small group of early churches. Wright is currently collecting data about where each site is successful, where there is room for improvement and other user feedback from the group. Eventually, the site will be launched to the United Church’s entire portfolio of approximately 3,000 properties as well as to other denominations that have expressed interest. The site also already aggregates thousands of existing church rental listings from around the web – think Expedia or Yelp – giving those listings more visibility.
“Like most start-ups, things are being released in a phased way so we can identify what exactly is bringing value to the churches and groups seeking space and then double down on that,” says Wright. It’s important to get it right, she says, because it involves so many irreplaceable multi-million-dollar assets.
At the same time, Wright notes that timing the launch of a product that markets the idea of filling up spaces with people has been tricky during a global pandemic. But now, with society returning to normal, “it’s a good time to talk about how we can help churches bounce back with these new tools for creating vibrant and financially sustainable in-person communities,” she says.
Leslie Sinclair is an intern at Broadview.
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