As a librarian, I feel a deep fear of the direct threat to library funding posed by the new administration. However, as a philanthropy professional, I can’t help but feel some small amount of hope.
Local, state, and federal funding are undoubtedly threatened. However, there is opportunity in philanthropic funding, which is nothing new to libraries—philanthropists all but founded our public library system. And philanthropy still supports libraries nationwide: since 2006, $2.9 billion from private philanthropy has been given to libraries. Philanthropic funding has always been a great opportunity for libraries to innovate and prototype new and emerging ideas. It may also be an important way to fill gaps and engage philanthropic organizations in protecting libraries as a critical public resource.
Nonetheless, libraries may find it daunting to discover and apply for grants—especially those too small to pay for specialists. Thanks to a News Challenge grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, that process may get a bit easier. As part of the Visualizing Funding for Libraries project, Foundation Center (my employer) has built a free, fully searchable funding data tool that will allow library professionals and supporters to track/locate funding.
We are developing training to help library professionals become better grant seekers, through webinars and in-person events. We are also developing a self-paced e-learning course that will be freely accessible this June.
Access to data alone won’t solve money problems, especially in today’s political climate. Just as we must learn to advocate for ourselves and our institutions, and reach out to voters, we also must learn how to be grant seekers and make our case to private givers about how we serve the communities we both care about.
Start with planning
Grant-seeking starts with planning. Think through your needs, what sort of funding is necessary, how much, how long you have to pursue that support, and who on your team can be dedicated to fundraising. Raising money costs money. Your dedicated staff time and resources cannot be understated. From the time you decide to apply for a grant to the moment you get the check, anywhere from three months to more than a year might pass. Make a plan and be prepared for the entire process.
As a rule, “if you know one foundation, you know one foundation.” However, there is a basic level of foundation 101 every grant seeker should know. There are three main types of private foundations: independent, company-sponsored, and operating. In addition, there are corporate giving programs (which can include pro bono contributions), grant-making public charities, and community foundations.
Each foundation has its own structure and motivations. Some operate strategically, taking an active interest in tackling their priorities, while others are reactive, responding to community needs as they arise. Tailor your approach to each, based on what is known about their motivations and what they’re able to fund.
Making the match
Prospecting foundations requires as much nuance and individualized courtship as job seeking. You have a mission, and your prospective funder has a mission. As a grant seeker, you must demonstrate how your organizations can deliver on those missions together.
Research is critical so you can center on the particulars of each funder in your process. Librarians are expert researchers, but we can’t Google our way around one fact: less than ten percent of the 80,000-plus U.S.–based foundations have a website.
The Visualizing Funding for Libraries data tool enables you to answer key questions and start to build your prospect list: Who is giving grants to the library in my county? Who funds capital campaigns? Who funds overhead? Who has a history of giving grants in the $75,000–$100,000 range?
Like nearly everything else in our lives, fundraising is essentially relational. This includes learning if there are any past or present connections between your library and the foundation you’re researching. Scour LinkedIn, then run a foundation’s staff by your Friends, foundations, boards, and/or trustees. If you can make any connection ahead of the actual proposal, so much the better.
It’s not about you
As you prepare to approach a funder—whether an individual donor, corporate sponsor, or foundation—remember that fundraising is not about the financial hole your library is in.
You’re inviting a funder to invest in your organization and its vision. You’re asking for an investment in future solutions not today’s or yesterday’s financial struggles. Most savvy nonprofits develop a case for support for fundraising. This internal document serves as a central place for fundraising staff to pull from as they write proposals or conduct outreach to funders.
Articulating value is another perennial challenge. As community problem-solvers, connectors, and change agents, libraries are uniquely positioned to champion the needs of their communities and partner with philanthropic organizations on solutions that address those needs. Libraries can look for more than “library” grants—you’re working on solutions for social justice, technology, STEAM, law, business, and more.
Philanthropy can’t solve all funding problems, but it is an important to diversify and fund new as well as established programming. With an annual philanthropic market of upwards of $55 billion in the United States alone, libraries can’t afford to sit this one out.