March 16, 2018

How to Win at the Ballot Box | Budgets & Funding

Plan and execute a successful campaign to get out the vote for library funding

The past two years have seen more than 100 U.S. libraries place budget referenda on their local ballots; LJ tracked 54 wins out of 79 measures in 2016 and 31 wins out of 36 in 2017. These high levels of success demonstrate that planning, a solid network of advocates, and creative and informative storytelling can go a long way to ensure victory with voters. LJ reached out to several libraries that succeeded with their initiatives in the past decade to find out how they did it. One thing they had in common? They started not with marketing materials but with delivering the services vital to their ­communities.

Deep planning + asking the experts

Sara Charlton, director at the Tillamook County Library (TCL), OR, is no stranger to library levies. “We’ve been on a levy since 1983,” she says, noting that what was once a two-year cycle has now been stretched to every five years. While the 2012 levy passed, voter turnout continued to follow a downward trend. Charlton heard many comments on the theme of “Why do we need a library anymore?” Anticipating the library would be up again in 2017 with increased financial needs, Charlton and her staff understood that something had to change. “We brought our need for a new strategic plan to city commissioners, a little worried about getting approval to spend the money on the process,” she tells LJ, “but we knew it would pay off.” The resulting 2015–20 Futures Plan represents a new vision for the library based on significant public input. “We hired Civic Technologies to do a data segmentation study,” Charlton says. The company specializes in creating “­tapestries” of demographic information that provide granular insight into a community. From that study, “we learned that a lot of wealthy people are moving to our area to retire,” which is a significant population shift from the area’s agricultural and logging roots.

GETTING THE WORD OUT From strategic and capital needs plans for funders to flyers for voters, effective case-making documents are key—and don’t be afraid to spell out the consequences if you don’t get the money. (Clockwise from top l.): Tillamook County Library, OR; Mid-Continent Public Library, MO; Richland Library, SC, and Free Library of Philadelphia

TCL also held a variety of public meetings during the strategic plan process to discover what residents were looking for from their library. “People wanted more programs,” according to Charlton, “so we added new programs. We did 800 programs last year with 16,000 people attending…. We have become the community’s living room,” she says. TCL also addressed the library’s digital offerings. “We added Wi-Fi printing and subscribed to hoopla,” says Charlton. This new level of engagement and responsiveness helped build a supportive public base for 2017’s levy, which asked for a ten percent increase and still passed with 62 percent of the vote. Penny Hummel, a library consultant who works with TCL, sees the ballot success as a sign that the library’s value has been communicated to voters. “We need to move beyond the idea that public libraries merely are providers of information,” says Hummel. “Those who see it as transformational are the ones who will support [a new levy].”

A full 20 months ahead of its 2013 bond referendum, the Richland Library, Columbia, SC, used “a political strategist who helped us determine though polling that a library bond referendum would likely be supported by voters,” according to development director Tina Gills. The strategist also assisted the library in fostering a connection with the city council in order to gain support for placing the bond on the ballot. Gills notes that the library had been submitting “a Capital Needs Plan…along with our annual operating budget” to the city council beginning in 2007 in order to bring the library’s needs to light. An informational campaign created in conjunction with the strategist and the library’s advocacy network sought to “educate voters on library programs and services vital to our community,” says Gills. This groundwork resulted in a 65 percent yes vote for the bond measure.

Timing counts

Identifying the best time to place a measure on the ballot is important. Missouri’s Mid-Continent Public Library (MCPL) had gone more than 30 years from its last levy increase in the mid-1980s, says Jim Staley, community relations and planning director. “We had a good case to be made, the library had been very fiscally responsible.” Coming off of seven years of flat or declining revenue owing to the recession, all 31 buildings in the system were dealing with deferred maintenance and lack of necessary upgrades; hiring had been frozen as well. “We were pretty much at the base of where we could be, operationally,” Staley says. Once the library board made the decision to go to the voters with a bond measure, it made the controversial decision to run it in 2016, a general election year. “This goes against the grain of [conventional] wisdom,” he notes. “Generally libraries want to go in an off year.” However, data from national library budget political action committee (PAC) ­EveryLibrary showed that on or off years don’t make as big of an impact as considering what other local agencies may also be showing up on the ballot. MCPL covers a large service area of 56 municipalities, so it was “very hard to find a date [when] we weren’t going to run into other measures” from school districts, public safety, or parks and recreation. On that basis, 2016 became the logical choice.

Staley saw a shift in the philosophy of MCPL over the past decade that helped bring the public along for success at the polls. “Over ten years ago, we were still really insular,” he says. “We weren’t going out to…be part of the community.” A significant shake-up in the library board led to a group that was more engagement- and civic-minded; a new strategic plan followed, and library staff began to find connections with chambers of commerce, economic development groups, and rotaries. “If we want to be seen as a community resource, we need our librarians to serve out in the community,” he states. When it came time to hold public meetings to discuss the measure, “the public had a sense of what we were doing. We could get into specifics in the ballot, we didn’t have to worry too much about educating the public. We would have had a much harder time in [the public forums] if we [went] in without any public knowledge of who we were.” Again, thoughtful preparation was key and led to MCPL’s new bond passing at just under 63 percent. Hiring began immediately, collections are growing rapidly, and work on buildings will begin in March, including the addition of “two new points of service,” according to Staley.

Finding your advocates

The line between public employee and passionate advocate can be tricky to navigate; sharing information about an upcoming vote is appropriate, but actively promoting a “yes” vote while employed by the organization it benefits can lead to trouble. Enter volunteers, including Friends of the Library groups, library boards and foundations, and PACs created to address the need for library advocacy in a ballot cycle. The Friends of the Dallas Public Library (FDPL) knew that a strong activist voice would be crucial both to finding support from city council to place a measure on the 2017 ballot and then ensuring the public voted yes at the polls. Patti Clapp, board member of FDPL, recalls a multiyear plan beginning in 2015 that resulted in the passing of Proposition E, a $15.6 million bond that would open two new libraries in underserved communities. “We held meetings with all of the library system’s Friends groups,” Clapp says, sharing that several branch libraries have their own Friends in addition to the larger umbrella group. “We wanted to let them know that regardless of whether new libraries were coming to their area, we needed to support the full system during the election.”

Members of the Friends network began contacting their city councilors and held meetings with the city manager. As they reached more contacts, they began a get out the vote email campaign. Proposition E was part of a larger, citywide bond package, so the Friends were able to piggyback on the work being done for the entire effort. “They had yard signs made, we had stickers to add that read ‘Vote Prop E’…our main strategy was to get out our voters, the library supporters,” says Clapp. “We were very proud to have the second highest support of the [ten] propositions on the ballot”; they “bombarded city council. Any public hearings for the package, we had library advocates there. Any time city hall had a meeting, we were there. We didn’t go away—we let them know we were there [by wearing] our bright red ‘We Love Dallas Libraries’ buttons.”

Medina County District Library (MCDL), OH, runs a levy every ten years, according to Tina Sabol, community engagement manager and LJ’s 2017 Marketer of the Year. The Citizens for the Library PAC, made up of passionate library supporters from Sabol’s professional and personal networks, was ready for 2017’s call to action. “We’re a small town,” she says. “I live and work here so I know a lot of people, which comes in handy.” When she looks to mobilize the PAC, she both handpicks volunteers for specific tasks and also does general volunteer recruitment. “We had over 100 people working on this last campaign; I like to give them marching orders and let them go for it.” Sabol recommends such an organized approach to maximize time and talents. A friend of Sabol’s who has young children at home was happy to take on the job of canvassing for Citizens for the Library. “It was kind of like a date she had with her husband; the kids stayed home, [the couple] got to be outdoors, and they dropped literature off at around 200 homes.”

Sabol also informs staff that they are allowed to participate in PAC activities, but it must be on their own time and work with communication methods outside library channels. “We were very careful with that line,” she says. “We had an in-service in fall 2016 [at which] I put out a sign with information about the PAC and a box to collect personal contact information. We made sure that there was no pressure on staff to [advocate] for the levy.” Cordelia Anderson, director of marketing, communications, and advocacy with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library (CML), NC, corroborates this necessary separation, saying, “While [staff are] acting as employees, their role is to educate, not advocate. If they wish to advocate outside of their job, they are welcome to do so, but they must disclose that they are a library employee and provide clarification that they are not speaking on behalf of the library.”

John Chrastka, founder and executive director of ­EveryLibrary and a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker, highlights the need for libraries to find not just advocates but activists. “Activists will say yes: I will fund, I will rally, I will take action. Advocacy can mean I’ll talk about it but can lack direct action,” he notes.

In order to bring an activist approach to its fundraising campaigns for the FY18/19 city budget, the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) has a team of community organizers on staff; the first three people hired into this team came directly from issue-oriented or political campaigning, explains Sara Moran, vice president of strategic affairs. Miriam Holzman-Lipsitz, manager of community relations, is part of this team. “We have coalitions to build on [from previous organizing],” she says. “We want to build reciprocal relationships to bring the library out into the community,” which in turn helps build a supportive base for upcoming votes.

Telling the library story

Storytelling is common during advocacy campaigns. Karen Beach, deputy director of the CML Foundation, notes that “we must share the impact of library programs and services on our community and demonstrate why funding is critical.” Chrastka adds, “The nature of communications needs to be about a shared value system—what do you believe? Libraries need to articulate a values system wherein funding a common good will be mutually beneficial.”

Moran recommends employing both data and story­telling techniques, especially if a library is on the ballot with propositions from other organizations, such as school districts or public safety departments. “We have a few quick, compelling data points: 25 percent of our customers are looking for jobs; 40 percent of Philadelphia third graders are not reading at grade level.” This statistical information can lead to new stories, digging in to the heart of what’s on the ballot. Moran and Holzman-Lipsitz emphasize the value of finding community members who can share their own stories. “A story is always going to be more complete if it’s someone’s own voice versus someone else sharing that story.” To this point, Clapp recalls a particular Dallas city council meeting at which a local student took the stage. “She talked about how the library helped her graduate from high school,” says Clapp. “She had to ride two buses to get to one of our libraries, where she could use the computers to complete her homework, and she spoke passionately about the benefits a new library in her own neighborhood would have.”

Beach notes that sharing the library’s story takes place year-round, in and out of ballot cycles. “The [CML] Foundation produces a signature fundraising event [each fall], featuring five New York Times [best-selling] authors. Many attendees are not library users, but through this event they receive strategic messages about the library’s impact, how relevant our library is in our changing world, and how their support makes an important difference.” Staff at MCDL are encouraged to bring library information to community groups of which they are members, such as rotaries, downtowner clubs, and school boards. This de facto speaker’s bureau maintains a nonpolitical stance but takes advantage of local partnerships to keep the library, its mission, and its needs in the dialog of these influential organizations. Tamara King, community relations director for the Richland Library, tells LJ, “Advocates are ambassadors who will ­essentially carry the water for us and stretch our reach past our walls.”

the consequences of voting no

Social media is a powerful tool for reaching voters; Sabol says that MCDL used mainly Facebook along with some Twitter posts to share information and advocate for the levy. “I wrote out a social media schedule for both the library and the PAC, which I gave to a volunteer who took it and ran.” Owing to the city’s small size, it was easy to connect with influential locals who then took the message to their own networks. The social media campaign “started out warm and fuzzy,” she says. “We didn’t even say anything about the levy at first,” instead stressing library services and stories from patrons. As time passed, however, the messaging ramped up to include the consequences of a failed levy. “If local funding is not renewed and expires at the end of 2017, MCDL will be forced to make sizable cuts due to the nearly 60% loss in revenue,” these later messages read. “Those cuts could include major reductions in new library items purchased, fewer open hours of operation or possible library closings, and elimination of library events, including story times and the Summer Reading Game.”

Chrastka says including this type of “Plan B” message in an informational campaign is imperative. “Communicating about outcomes, including shortfalls, [makes the difference] with the questioning or suspicious voter,” he says. “We need to share what could happen if a measure doesn’t pass so that folks become aware of what’s at stake.” Staley notes that with regard to MCPL’s recent levy, he might have originally shied away from telling the Plan B story. But after working with EveryLibrary and passing a successful proposition he recommends to other libraries that they “not be afraid to lay it out. Our marketing department put together a good piece, which allowed people to clearly see what was at stake.”

SHARING A STORY Members of the Philadelphia City Council pose with copies of Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train, the Free Library of Philadelphia’s 2015 One Book One Philadelphia selection, which helped bring the library out to the community—and the community into the library. Photo courtesy of FLP

In Tillamook, advocates were blunt with their big message: “If we don’t pass the levy, we’ll close,” Charlton says, noting that during each levy, the library has been faced with antitax sentiment. In order to share the library’s story, board members rely on the new strategic plan, which clearly demonstrates that the library is listening to its community and has a commitment to mutually beneficial services. “We provide a lot of family-wage jobs through our library system,” she notes, so library closures could hit very close to home.

Targeting the right audience

Considering voices in opposition to library funding, Chrastka points out what many library workers know: you can’t please everyone. “Your campaign should have time to address legitimate concerns,” he says, and a PAC or other advocacy arm needs to be prepared to have “real conversations about money.” TCL’s Hummel referenced a quote from suffragist Emma Smith: “Convert the indifferent; there are thousands of them. Let the incorrigible alone; they are only a few.”

In the end, every library looking to pass a ballot measure will need to individualize its approach. “There is no one size fits all template,” says Chrastka. “Plans need to be germane to that particular community.” Through organizational self-reflection, listening to community needs, and activating a strong team who can take a compelling story to the public, libraries will enter a voting year as prepared as possible to succeed.

April Witteveen is a Community Librarian with the Deschutes Public Library System in Central Oregon

GET TO YES! For more information on how to gain stronger support from voters—and other funders—look for LJ’s upcoming online workshop this spring at

This article was published in Library Journal's February 15, 2018 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. I would add the following tips for whomever is trying a millage:

    1) Announce your events at local government meetings. This is way bigger than you think. The few people that watch council meetings vote. You want them to know you. Every meeting say what is going on at the library. You do not have to be a master speaker. I write down and read what I say beforehand.

    2) There is a misconception that you should only go after indifferent and votes that support you only. I would not completely agree. Go to your opposition meetings, or to groups that you feel may oppose you. Offer to speak. Go in with a neutral mind, explain the positives and why it is on the ballot. Even if they do not vote for it, they at least will may not be quite as animated in opposition. This can be huge as well.

    Good luck.

  2. Oh and one more thing: Join a local civic organization. Don’t be a stranger either. Be a good member, attend meetings, participate. This is a good way to gain contacts in your community that impact it.

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