"A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window." – Stewart Brand

Mar 13, 2010

Donor-Centered Fundraising and Librarianship

My program requires students to take at least one "cognate course" outside of the School of Information as part of their degree.* To fulfill this requirement, I chose a course in grantgetting and fundraising through the School of Social Work. It was a great choice -- the professor is fantastic; I'm learning things that I know will be very useful in public library work, particularly in later years when I begin to take on administrative roles; and it led to the opportunity for me to write a real grant proposal for the library where I intern (we're still waiting to hear from the funder... it's nervewracking!).

Recently we were assigned the book Donor-Centered Fundraising by Penelope Burk. This book proposes a new paradigm for fundraising based around conscientious, regular, two-way (informing and listening) contact with donors. Burk argues that rather than trying to recruit new donors again and again to make up for attrition, fundraisers and development officers should work on building relationships with donors by staying in regular contact, thanking them personally, and keeping them informed of the results of their donation, among other things. She argues that it is much better spend time on building these relationships and using the stronger connections to move donors "up the ladder" to higher and higher donation levels than to spend the time constantly recruiting new, low-level donors. The book is aimed at nonprofits in general; public libraries are obviously in a different situation from many nonprofits because we are funded largely with tax and other public dollars. But I have been thinking about how Burk's philosophy could be applied in libraries. I am particularly interested in smaller libraries which almost certainly will not have their own development staff.

One might ask: when there is a Friends of the Library, might they not be more appropriate fundraisers than library staff? I'm not sure that in all cases they would. My understanding of how Friends groups and libraries interact, financially and otherwise, is still rudimentary. However, I would think that even if a library has a strong Friends group, there might still be situations in which it would like to solicit donations to itself rather than to the Friends. Furthermore, library staff can support donor-centered fundraising initiatives regardless of whether they are headed by the Friends or by the library.

How? To my mind, the key is this: A good library is already in the business of building strong relationships with our patrons. Good libraries listen to what their patrons want and need, and provide responsive, relevant services and resources. Good librarians try to build rapport with the people with whom they interact. I have had the opportunity to work with and at some excellent libraries, and the most striking common factor among almost all of them has been the ways that many of their patrons felt connected to the library on a personal level.

Building this kind of relationship, where the (potential) donor connects with the organization in a way that feels personal and meaningful to him/her, seems to me to be the core of Burk's donor-centered philosophy. I do not know whether the libraries I have in mind fulfill the specific tenets of the strategy (e.g. contacting donors quickly and in a way that feels personal, keeping donors updated on the impact that their money and the program/service it has funded is having, cultivating donors no matter the size of their original gift). But whether they do or not, I believe they've already come closer to creating a donor-centered atmosphere than many of the nonprofits Burk describes. (Perhaps this is in part because libraries' potential donors are the same as their service population?)

We all know that when community members feel good about their library, they have the potential to be active supporters. But people often need a nudge to move from appreciation to action. How can libraries leverage the strong relationships they build with their patrons to get their supporters to act to the benefit of the library? To use a phrase I've often seen and heard while taking this class, how can libraries ethically and effectively "make the ask" to their patrons? Is it better to target specific patrons who are known to be particularly strong supporters? Should the library make a blanket request on its website or in its newsletter and hope that some people will be inclined to respond? And when supporters respond to "the ask," what mechanisms need to be in place to ensure that they are communicated with at the (potentially time-intensive) level that donor-centered fundraising requires, or at something as close to that level as the library can possibly get?**

What is also interesting to me is that many of the principles of donor-centered fundraising seem as though they can be applied to supporters who, for instance, offer their time instead of their money. Could we use similar techniques and ideas to move volunteers "up the ladder" in terms of the time and energy they commit to helping the library?

It is in fact somewhat surprising to me that this book needed to be written at all. So much of what it advocates -- communicate in a timely fashion, and in as personalized a way as possible; keep supporters up to date on the organization's activities; etc. -- seems like common sense and common courtesy. That is part of why I think libraries are ahead of the game. As service organizations, we've been following constituent-centered philosophies for a while. It just seems to me that we haven't quite figured out whether or how to effectively connect what we're already doing to our need to secure continuing support in times of economic difficulty.


* This is actually a requirement that comes from Rackham, the University of Michigan's Graduate School, not from SI in particular. SI is soon becoming its own school external to Rackham, like other professional schools at UM, but I really hope that they keep this requirement -- it is a fantastic opportunity for students to broaden their knowledge in an area relevant to their careers but not directly within the domain of SI.

** Burk does not ask for perfection, but rather advocates gradual uptake of the principles and practices of donor-centered fundraising for those who do not have the time or resources to pick up the approach wholesale (as I am sure most libraries, particularly small libraries, do not). She suggests that while some increase in resource investment will definitely be necessary at the outset, eventually the increase in funds obtained through donations will offset the greater time requirements. Of course, this somewhat presumes that the organization can hire development staff. If the entire fundraising operation must be conducted by volunteers or by other library staff, the issue of how much time is available in which to perform these activities becomes even more pressing.

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