November 21, 2017

Making the Advocacy Decision

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALibrary trustees—whether elected or appointed—have the fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the library has the resources to provide the programs and services the community wants.

In some states, trustees take an oath of office. In others, there’s no oath but rather the expectation that they treat the job just as seriously as if they had taken one. The trustees set policy and also oversee the financial health and well-being of the library. The former delineates the library’s day-to-day business—how many books patrons can take out, how the rooms are used, etc. The latter, however, can be a bit tricky because trustees have to make the case for funding—either to the local municipality or to the voters.

No matter how a library is funded, trustees must decide that advocacy is going to be part of their identities as trustees. Yes, there’s a difference between public education and a vote yes effort—but they are both part of advocacy, and advocacy is part of a trustee’s mandate.

When library trustees are faced with the need to persuade their local government to provide more funding, or ask the voters to support the library’s budget or millage, or go to the public to procure community-based funding for a building, they must make an informed decision that includes the willingness to advocate for the library. It is essential for the entire board to be in support of the initiative. Sure, there will be discussion and there might even be a no vote or two. But as with any well-run, responsible committee, once the board makes a decision, it is imperative that all its members support that decision.

After deliberations in one upstate New York urban library, the decision was made to pursue becoming a library district by which the voters approve an annual budget and elect trustees. There was one board member who opposed the effort. He could not, in good conscience, support the effort to raise funds through a tax and he resigned. But instead of taking his discomfort public, he kept his disagreement with the board out of the spotlight. This is the best possible scenario when a board member is unhappy with an advocacy decision.

PUTTING A PLAN IN PLACE

Once the decision to move forward is made, the board must put a plan in place that educates elected officials or the voters. That public education should include talking points, a Q&A, a website on the initiative (especially if you’re going for a public vote), social media, and direct mail material. The board and the library have numerous opportunities to educate the public. Staff can explain the funding initiative and its pros and cons. The library director can make public presentations. Trustees can talk with municipal and community leaders. Together, they can build momentum.

Trustees are the backbone of a library’s advocacy efforts. If they don’t stand up for the library, why should anyone else?

Trustees also have the ability to say “vote yes” as long as they differentiate their civilian opinion from their role as board members and identify themselves as “Josephine Taxpayer” rather than “Josephine, the Library Trustee.”  Yet, honestly, would anyone expect a trustee to take their board member hat off and then say, “Vote no”?

FRIENDS, INDEED

Trustees can build effective community partnerships for the library starting with the library’s Friends group. These folks, as long as the Friends are a separate 501(c)(3), can spend all day saying vote yes. They can’t spend all their money saying vote yes—only up to 20 percent of their budget, according to the IRS—but they can go out into the community and talk, talk, talk.

There are times when the Friends make all the difference. At an urban library in Westchester County, NY, that was on the brink of closing, the board chose to move forward with asking the voters for $4.35 ­million. But it was the Friends who made the campaign happen. Composed of older residents who lived and taught there, as well as professional women, the Friends reflected the demographics of the community. Together with staff, volunteers, and the board they created a bandwagon effect that brought in all the local segments and culminated in saving the ­library.

No matter what the decision is, however, it all starts with the trustees. It is this body that makes the decision to move forward. It is this body that makes the difference for the community through their support of the library. They need to work together, with full intent, if they are going to succeed.


Libby Post is President/CEO of Communication Services and serves on the American Library Association’s Library Advocacy Committee.

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