Everywhere you turn in the world of libraries these days, you hear people talking about the need for private fundraising. ALA conferences have multiple concurrent sessions on fundraising, articles dealing with fundraising in library publications abound, and listservs everywhere are dissecting the pros and cons of private fundraising.
Twenty-five years ago, no one in the library world talked about fundraising. Or if they did, it was in regard to the latest and greatest book sale by their Friends group. Now we have an entirely new type of organization that has developed in support of libraries: a library foundation. Foundations differ from Friends groups in two significant ways: they are typically staffed by fundraising professionals, and they attempt to raise large amounts of private funding from individuals, foundations, and corporations.
One would think that these organizations would be the answer to a library’s financial woes, and would be greeted with open arms by library directors and trustees. And some of them are. But there are an equal number of library foundations which have had a rocky relationship with the library they are created to support.
So where is the disconnect? It may be in several areas. First is the reason for creating a library foundation. Private funding should always serve to enhance a publicly funded institution’s programs and services. It is not meant to replace public funding. Yet the great interest in creating library foundations has arisen from the dramatic loss of public funding which many libraries have experienced in recent years. Creating a library foundation to replace public funding is misguided. The day-to-day operating needs of the library will always clash with the interests of private donors if this is the motivation for seeking out private funding for your library. If a huge loss in public funding is your primary concern, you may want to create a grassroots advocacy program before you create a library foundation. Getting citizens actively involved in lobbying for your library’s operating budget (as opposed to the library staff and director attempting this) can produce remarkable results.
Even when a library foundation is created for the appropriate role of raising private money for enhancements, there can still be problems between a library and its foundation. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I have heard a library director say something to this effect: “We created a library foundation several years ago, but they don’t seem to be raising any money for us.” Is this really happening a lot? And, if so, why is that the case? There may be a number of things contributing to this sense of disconnection between libraries and their foundations.
One of the most difficult issues with which to deal may be a personality conflict. Let’s face it, there are people who just don’t get along because of stylistic differences. If these stylistic differences exist between the leadership of the foundation and the leadership of the library, it is unlikely that good communication will exist, resulting in the foundation not being responsive to the library’s needs.
But even when good communication exists between the library and the foundation, it may be a number of years before the library reaps the fruits of the foundation’s labor. Library foundations are usually staffed by fundraising professionals. Staff cost money. Before the foundation can provide support to the library, it needs to pay its own operating costs. Some professionals believe that it takes at least three years for a newly staffed organization to raise more than it pays in staffing costs. Most libraries that create foundations are looking for a quick return on their money, which may be unrealistic.
The other thing to remember is that a library foundation is its own organization, just like the library is. Organizations need care and feeding. They don’t just operate in a vacuum. As a non-profit organization, the library’s foundation needs to recruit and orient a continual stream of new board members; it needs to adhere to human resource policies for its staff; it needs to maintain donor information in a database; it needs to adhere to strict accounting policies; it needs to file annually with all local and state regulatory agencies for non-profits; it needs to have regular means of communicating with donors; it needs to have annual audits of its finances; and it needs to have up-to-date gift acceptance and investment policies. None of these activities, which are expected of all non-profit organizations, raises a penny for the library, and yet they are critically important to maintaining the kind of organization to which savvy donors will want to contribute. In short, it takes money to raise money.
What about the library foundation conducting activities which don’t give the library a direct cash contribution? The three most common non-fundraising activities conducted by library foundations are: cultural programming, advocacy, and public awareness. What is the potential value of these activities to the library?
Library foundations that are involved in conducting adult cultural programs usually do so for a number of reasons. First, these programs can bring heightened public awareness of the foundation’s fundraising efforts. A gathering of people at a program can provide an opportunity to mention a current fund drive that the foundation is conducting. The second reason to offer this kind of activity is to increase the number of people coming to the library. People may attend a program in the library who never enter a library for its print and electronic resources. Once there, they may decide to take advantage of some of the resources and programs they didn’t know the library offered. Third, if the foundation has a program with a national literary figure, it can be a fundraiser in and of itself. And finally, (and this is not insignificant) programming gives foundation Board members something to “own.” Most of their activities involve raising funds for programs which the library has determined are important for private support. Cultural programming may be an activity over which the foundation has more control, and through which it can feel its own sense of identity.
Political advocacy is an activity in which every library foundation should engage. It may wish to partner with the local Friends groups, or take this on as its own activity when Friends groups are reluctant to participate in grassroots advocacy activities. The thing about foundations that makes them the perfect group to conduct political advocacy is their board composition. Most foundations, if they are successful, have realized that they must recruit the most influential and well connected board members for effective fundraising. These board members are usually civic and business leaders in the community. These are the individuals to whom elected officials listen. If they carry the advocacy message for the library, the elected officials will listen far more closely to the funding requests these individuals make than they will to a plea from a library director. In addition, the foundation, which typically has financial assets at its disposal, can leverage an advocacy request with the promise of private matching dollars. Pairing fundraising with advocacy is a win/win.
Are public awareness activities a worthwhile undertaking for a library foundation? Most library directors whom I know feel that libraries never have adequate budgets for marketing and communication and wish their library had a stronger visible presence in the community. Foundation board members will likely have access to marketing and communications professionals and organizations in the community. They may be influential in getting these organizations to work with the library, potentially offering pro bono services in these areas. The foundation may also have its own marketing and communications staff, who can work side by side with the library’s marketing and communications staff to increase the library’s visibility in the community. Increased visibility brings increased use, which eventually may bring an increase in public support. Good communications and marketing is also key to any successful fundraising effort.
So a case can be made for library foundations to conduct activities which don’t bring direct financial support to the library. The issue is always one of balance. A library foundation that only conducts its own activities and never contributes financially to the library won’t have the support of the library director and staff for long. Just as a library foundation which hopes to raise money for library programs and services, but spends too many years getting its house in order and just paying its own operating costs, will also not survive in the long run. An effective and smoothly functioning library foundation can be the best partner your library could imagine. It can be your link to all of the people of influence in the community, it can provide needed financial support for the enhancements you’d like to offer but can’t with limited public funds, and it can be your conduit to the policy makers and decision makers who hold the key to public funds for your library. A library foundation is worth creating and it’s worth creating well. Get the best big-picture thinkers involved at the start, be clear about the foundation’s mission and activities, and build in constant communications between the library and the foundation. Five years from now you’ll be wondering how you ever survived without it.
Peter Pearson has been the President of The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library for the past 21 years. This one organization serves as both a Friends group and a library foundation for the Saint Paul Public Library. Pearson is also the Lead Consultant for Library Strategies, a consulting group of The Friends which provides consulting services to libraries in the areas of fundraising, advocacy, and strategic planning.