Monday, February 11, 2008

"Funders don't want to fill your pail; they want to light your fire."

I went to the fundraising forum on my dinner break yesterday, and I really wish that what they'd handed me when I walked in was a glossary of terms as opposed to a chart about sustainable library funding.* The whole meeting reminded me of my days as an archivist (cue the harp music and image distortion), when I used to spend hours pouring over 18th century church records. You'd think that after all that pouring [CORRECTION: that should be poring, as one of my esteemed colleagues pointed out], I'd know the difference between a bequest and an endowment, but it's still sort of fuzzy.

But the meeting made me want to know. Here were two library directors, one from the Westerly Public Library and one from Hartford, who could rattle off fundraising strategies, statistics, and William Butler Yeats quotes with dazzling accuracy. They were passionate library advocates with tantalizing anecdotes that make you think, oh, if only I were so clever.

But enough gushing. As I was saying, fundraising is complicated, and has its own vocabulary. Fortunately, certain things transcend the vernacular, and here's what I took home:
  • "Library leadership needs to reach out to supporters." That's a quote from the director of the Hartford Public Library. She also said that she "put a public face on the library," making sure she was at the table when decisions were being made and partnering with organizations and individuals who could also be library advocates. Further, she recruited people to the development committee who she felt were "boundary spanners," as in people who could bring the gospel of library services to the people walking in darkness.
  • Every library is funded differently--in every city, in every state--so there's no one way to do funding. You have to employ a variety of strategies.
A few fun facts:
  • At the Westerly Public Library, they put a tip jar at the circulation desk for loose change, and they make $1,000 a year that way.
  • The Hartford Public Library has many funders who live outside the city. These people have some personal historical connection, and they care about the maintenance of the institution on principle.
There were about 25 people there, a couple library employees, two guys about my age who had a journalistic air about them, some recognizable PPL higher-ups, union peeps, and library reform stalwarts. I hardly think it attracted anyone besides the usual suspects, which is too bad, because I believe it would have been interesting to a wide variety of non-profit types.

I couldn't stay for the Q&A, but I walked out thinking, this totally confirmed what I think. Which may be a sign that I'm becoming sort of stuck in my position, which is: why doesn't PPL make more information available to its employees and the public? I know that there are some limitations on what you can or want to say when you're battling it out with the city. But I think PPL could do more to remind people how important the library is, or to warn them of threats to library services. Where's our "public face"?
*OK, I admit it: I really wish they'd handed me a cup of coffee and a nice glazed donut, but if it had to be a paper product ...

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