20 Years of Excellence: Interview with Sara Crofts
2022 marked 20 years since the beginning of Europa Nostra and the European Commission’s collaborative work on the European Heritage Awards / Europa Nostra Awards. To mark this important milestone, Europa Nostra interviewed a number of representatives to understand what the Awards have meant to heritage stakeholders throughout Europe.
The Society for the Protection of Ancient Building‘s award-winning Faith in Maintenance project helped volunteers who care for historic places of worship to understand their buildings better and to carry out basic preventative maintenance. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage (now Historic England), the project ran for five years (2007 -2012). It delivered 150 courses and trained more than 5,000 volunteers throughout the UK mainly from Anglican, Methodist, United Reformed Church, Roman Catholic and Jewish groups.
In 2010, the Faith in Maintenance project was selected to receive a European Heritage Award / Europa Nostra Award, chosen as “an inspirational model for many similar projects where, for various reasons, it is not possible for maintenance to be conducted by professionals”.
Sara Crofts, the leader of the project, received the Award at the European Heritage Awards Ceremony which took place in Istanbul, Turkey. Since winning the Award, Sara has played an active and important role in Europa Nostra’s activities, acting as a member of the Council, lending her expertise in training as Chair of the Selection Committee for Education, Training and Skills and as a member of the Heritage Awards Jury. Since 2020, Sara has been Chair of Europa Nostra UK.
Given her special relationship to the Awards, we recently caught up with Sara to ask her about her experience of winning the Award and how she and her organisation have benefitted since winning.
The interview was conducted by Elena Bianchi, Heritage Awards Coordinator. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Elena Bianchi: Sara, being both a winner and now a jury member, we are very grateful that you can dedicate this time to sharing your experience with us. First of all, we wanted to ask you about the project for which you received the award, Faith in Maintenance: what should people know about this initiative?
Sara Crofts: Faith in Maintenance, arose from a longstanding concern of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) about the state of parish structures – primarily churches in England, but also different types of religious buildings. We were very aware that basic maintenance wasn’t being carried out, partly because our parish churches in the UK are looked after almost solely by volunteers.
There was this twin problem of people not knowing there was something they should be doing or, even if they did know that they should worry about maintenance, they did not really know how to go about it.
So an idea was formulated and it was a very basic idea: we would simply offer maintenance training courses and we would make them free to attend. To do this, we had to find someone to fund the project. Faith in Maintenance became the first ever application that SPAB made to what at the time was the Heritage Lottery Fund (now the National Lottery Heritage Fund). In the end, the training program ran for five years and included around 150 courses, all in person in the parish churches.
We provided a suite of extra materials, such as the Good Maintenance Guide (a handbook) and a Faith in Maintenance calendar, which became one of the things people really liked, and which is still mentioned today. We also made a video and we distributed thousands of copies of the video and handbook freely. We also built a project website that included pages and pages of useful practical guidance.
The point was to be totally practical and not at all academic or intellectual. We wanted to address this question: If you are a volunteer who is trying to care for a medieval parish church, what can you usefully do? So, the training and advice focused on cleaning gutters, clearing drains, and other kinds of messy jobs like that, and we made a point of trying to give people the confidence to do it. That was a huge learning from the project – that most people really wanted to look after their buildings, they just did not know where to start. So, our task was really giving them permission to start, in the sense of saying “Yes, ok, you are a volunteer, but you can do it, it is fine. Here are a few top tips to get you started”.
The initiative did need the support of the parish authorities and we had that, not just from the Church of England, which is the biggest of the denominations in England, but also from the Methodist Church, the Catholic Church and some of the smaller non-Conformist denominations too.
The project was also unusual in that it received 5 years of funding but the real sign that people valued it was that we were able to secure funding for a follow-up project. Faith in Maintenance was followed by the “Maintenance Cooperative Movement” which also received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The second project was focused on trying to embed learning and skills in specific places and then get the volunteers operating in those specific places to help other local places. So it wasn’t quite a “training the trainer” model, it was more about building capacity locally to keep the maintenance routines going and to share and nurture skills and confidence. The Maintenance Co-ops project (as it became known) ran for 3 years before its funding came to an end. So we had 8 very positive years where SPAB contributed to the care and repair of places of worship in the UK.
Elena Bianchi: Do you remember what the impact of the Award was on you, SPAB and the local communities involved in the project?
Sara Crofts: I think the biggest impact for SPAB was to change the perception of the organisation. At the time we were sometimes perceived to be a barrier to progress and healthy change. The stories that people remembered were occasions when the SPAB said that they didn’t like a scheme to build an extension, for example, or when we objected to a proposal to renovate the interior of a parish church. We had quite a negative public image.
What the Faith in Maintenance project and the Award helped to do was to change that relationship, because, as SPAB, we could demonstrate that we were offering something helpful. We could show that we care about the future of church buildings and that we want them to continue to exist for their communities. It built a lot of bridges with church authorities and brought down a lot of barriers that were there just because people did not understand what SPAB was about. So, in terms of relationships, it did make a huge difference. I think it also helped SPAB to start changing its own operational model because we learned that we could get funding for projects, they could do other things, and they could deliver different kinds of educational programmes.
We applied for the Award because we also wanted to be able to prove to our funders that we had external validation. The Europa Nostra Award was useful as it came from an external body that had evaluated our work and compared it to others across the whole of Europe and then said, “actually, this thing is one of the best across the continent”. I think the recognition is really valuable and every time SPAB has been looking for funding we have always said, “you know we are pretty good at what we do, Europa Nostra gave us an Award”.
Elena Bianchi: Indeed, what about yourself? Your involvement in Europa Nostra has increased a lot since you got the Award.
Sara Crofts: You’re right, Elena! Winning an award is nice, but there is much more to it. There are many intangible benefits. Attending the Congress, taking part in the events, meeting other winners helps you understand that you are part of a bigger cultural heritage picture. There is also a lot very interesting things happening outside the UK, and you think, “I can learn a lot here”.
There are a lot of good partnerships and friendships which can be built too. I learn a lot from the other people in the Council, the people on the Board or the people I meet at events. It is all part of my ongoing professional development.
On my own CV, I acknowledge my international connections, I talk about some of the work I do with Europa Nostra, and the fact that I led an award-winning project.
Elena Bianchi: So, attending the ceremony and the Congress was definitely an unforgettable experience for you?
Sara Crofts: Yes, definitely memorable! That year, the Congress took place in Istanbul and for various reasons, has been one of the best I can think of. There was something magical about being in the Topkapı Palace.
Elena Bianchi: What message would you like to give to other people, why should they apply for the Awards? You mentioned already the importance of being part of a larger network and the recognition you received.
Sara Crofts: Yes, I think there are huge development opportunities that come out of being an award winner but the recognition aspect is probably key. The heritage sector does not have many awards, and everyone’s so busy working so it’s really valuable to take time and reflect on what people have achieved and then to say, ‘actually we deserve to celebrate what we do’. The opportunity for celebration and recognition is very important but the process is also very valuable because writing the nomination form makes you reflect on the outcomes and impact of your work. Not everyone does evaluation as part of their projects. It tends to happen most when projects are externally funded, so capturing and sharing that learning with other people through the Heritage Excellence Day is part of how we keep knowledge and capacity in the sector.