I read Steve Coffman's article "Saving Ourselves: Plural Funding for Public Libraries" (AL, Feb. 2004, p. 37-39) with great interest. Four years ago, when I became director of the Osterville (Mass.) Free Library on Cape Cod, I joined the staff of a successful library and a well-oiled fundraising machine. Over the course of the past 30 years, the Osterville Library's board of trustees and the various library directors have experimented with and perfected a series of fundraising events and practices that bring in $225,000 annually above and beyond our municipal funding.
To accomplish this, each year the library holds two golf tournaments, a weeklong "Summer Celebration," a car raffle, and two auctions. On a daily basis, Osterville sells used books, T-shirts, and art prints. Seasonally, the library has sold bread mixes ("Raise a little dough"), soup mixes ("Support our Souper Library"), and preserves ("Jam'in at the Osterville Library"). It also mails a successful annual appeal letter.
There are benefits and drawbacks to depending on fundraising events for operating income. The most obvious drawback is that when your golf tournament gets rained out, you have to refund the entry fees. You absolutely need a rainy-day fund to get you through when an event is not as successful as anticipated.
On the other hand, one of the benefits to constant fundraising--besides the influx of money--is that it creates endless opportunities to tell your story. Osterville fundraises because the municipality provides only 40% of what it needs to run a good library. It has to raise the rest. That's the story--and every time the library holds an event, writes a PR piece, or mails a fundraising letter the library has an opportunity to tell it.
Wisdom from the trenches
Having been through three fundraising cycles at the Osterville library, I have a few observations from the trenches to pass along to directors and board members who are considering extensive fundraising to supplement their annual operating budgets.
* Make an honest appraisal of your library and your staff. Before you begin asking your community to contribute its financial support to your library, take a look around to see what your patrons see. A clean, tidy facility (even if it is threadbare or inadequate) speaks well of an organization, as does a friendly, helpful staff. When you ask your patrons to become your donors, you change the relationship you have with them: The library staff become the stewards of the organization, and the patrons become members.
* Consider when and where you want people to open their wallets. Overdue fines and printing fees are standard library practice--but to a donor, these things may feel more like a punishment. At Osterville, staff tend to be lenient when it comes to collecting fines, waiving printing and copying fees whenever there is a hint of complaint. The library also adopted a policy to distribute free copies of reference materials and tax forms.
Sometimes people take advantage of our good nature, but more often they are just grateful to have been given a break. To put it in the simplest terms, it takes a lot of overdue fines to add up to a $50 annual contribution--and the library is more likely to get a generous donation from someone who remembers how understanding staff were when their videos were a week late.
* Fundraising requires both staff time and leadership. It is easy to underestimate the amount of time it takes to plan and execute good fundraising events. Osterville's 17-member board of trustees puts in hundreds of hours annually moving tables, soliciting donations, smiling, making sand-wiches, serving hot dogs, and shaking hands at fundraising events. …