At the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference, ALA’s United for Libraries division presented a well-received session, Getting a Bigger Piece of the Pie: Effective Communication with Funders and Policy Makers. A panel of three experienced fundraisers talked about what is and isn’t working in their ongoing mission to help support their libraries, offering a range of good advice to library leaders and fundraisers at every level.
THE POWER OF THE POSITIVE
Deborah Doyle, director of development for the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), president of the California Library Association, and United for Libraries board member, recently concluded a major Friends fundraising push with the completion of the new North Beach branch. “It was very emotionally charged, and we were all delighted that that was the last one,” said Doyle, but the Friends were not about to rest on their laurels. Since the first renovated branch had opened ten years earlier, they decided to throw a party—to celebrate their work over the past decade, and to right what they saw as an oversight in the fundraising process. “What we forgot,” Doyle explained, “was to thank and thank and thank the people who gave us money.”
The population of San Francisco has changed significantly over the past decade; 43 percent of the city’s residents are new to the city since SFPL began work on its 16 branch renovations and eight new buildings. The Friends decided this was their chance to thank their donors; introduce people to the library system’s changes; and connect with a revitalized community of users, businesses, and vendors all at once. They organized a citywide celebration, as well as branch-by-branch events and parties that have brought in a number of community partners and sponsors. “People come and join at the door because they think this is so interesting,” Doyle said.
Valerie Gross, CEO and president of the Howard County Library System, MD, feels that the language libraries use to describe their services is a critical part of the equation. Gross has written for LJ about her work redefining the language libraries use to describe themselves—that they are in the business of education, rather than simply information, redefining reference as “research” and storytime as “children’s classes,” among many other reframings. At the turn of the 20th century public libraries predated many of the country’s public schools, explained Gross, and this language reclaims libraries’ original mission.
“What is perceived as valuable gets funded,” said Gross, noting that recent Pew research statistics show that a third of the population doesn’t understand what libraries do, whereas 100 percent know what schools are for. “We are education,” she stated. “We simply need to teach people that we are.” Using bottled water as an example of what people will pay for, she added, “We have the power, with language, to become the Evian of public libraries.” And her strategy is working: “Over the past decade we’ve seen our statistics double and triple, our budget has doubled,” said Gross.
What works for April Butcher, executive director of the Sacramento Public Library (SPL) Foundation, CA; and member of the board of directors of California Public Library Advocates, is having a strategy. This includes planning mission-specific events, soliciting endowments; promotional efforts—direct mail tends to work better than online requests, she noted—and collaborating with other literacy organizations. “What I’ve been spending my time doing is trying to develop sustainable fundraising,” Butcher said, “to brand the library as the center of literacy in the town.”
She makes sure that the library’s promotion tells stories people want to hear, such as the fact that the SPL summer reading program reaches some 27,000 children vulnerable to summer slide, year after year. In addition, Butcher said, make sure the board has members who will reach out to other institutions, intentional leadership, and solid financial practices.
What hasn’t worked?
“Pessimism,” said Gross. “So we swapped it out for optimism.” She pointed out that many of the catchphrases that libraries have become accustomed to using over the past few years—“We need to remain relevant” or “Our future is uncertain”—send a negative message, noting that an investor would never buy stock in a company that described itself that way.
Butcher recalled that merging the library board with its Friends was not a success, because the two had such different cultures of fundraising. She also warned that a library board should be chosen with an eye to leadership qualities and sound financial practices. Board members who stated up front that they didn’t want to have to raise money, or who were hesitant to reach out to elected officials, would hinder the library’s mission, and bringing in investment professionals could eventually constitute a conflict of interest.
Don’t hang on to old thinking or old relationships, cautioned Doyle. Even in the midst of successful fundraising, SFPL was looking toward the next major campaign, particularly long-term strategies such as planned giving. “Listen. Renew. Collaborate,” she said. “If you haven’t changed in 20 years, that’s a problem.”
Audience members were concerned about communicating, above all. How do you justify fundraising to patrons who wonder why they’re being asked to pay for a publicly funded institution? Talk about enrichment, panelists said, and be able to explain about percentages, and where programming comes from, while keeping in mind that the bigger donors are typically not library users (“They believe in the library but they don’t use it. They buy their books,” noted Butcher.)
Panelists also offered advice about reaching out, from talking to older constituents—highlighting specific senior-friendly programs—to younger, affluent citizens—by explaining how an endowment made now can give their money three times over. “You just have to nail that ‘in perpetuity’ piece,” said Butcher. “They’re looking to make an impact. Name [the trust] after them.”
All three agreed that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for fundraising, but that communication is always key: between board members, library leadership, and potential donors. There is no magic formula—but as it turns out, your mother was right all along: Say “please” and “thank you,” and watch your language.