Reimagining Fundraising: Improve Your Finances by Cultivating Relationships

Reimagining FundraisingWith today’s economic situation being a little tenuous, it’s becoming more and more important for libraries to look for other ways to fund their needs. Fundraising campaigns that tap the private sector or leverage partnerships with other community agencies are becoming more common — and they’re a great way for libraries to expand their services beyond what traditional funding sources might allow. Here are some points to keep in mind if you’re thinking about embarking on such a strategy.

1. Develop a short-term and long-term fundraising strategy

Just like any other plans in your library, you should be looking at fundraising from both a short- and long-term perspective. Some smaller amounts of money can be raised for immediate use in smaller programs while other activities may need longer range planning. Even in longer campaigns, being able to set milestones helps you celebrate wins along the way and allows people to better visualize where things are in the process.

2. Tell your library’s story

Helping your community understand the personality and value of your library can build relationships in a way that creates library advocates. Telling the story in different ways — through the eyes of your staff, friends of the library and even your patrons — can be very powerful and can be incorporated into your website, print materials and more as you build your fundraising campaign materials. Asking for support from high-profile community figures that have a passion for the library is a great way to garner broader public support.

An important part of the story is highlighting the value of the services that your library provides to the community. Many libraries offer such a feature directly on their website. (See for an example of a value calculator in use.)

3. Identify how funds will be used

Clearly identifying library needs, and consistently expressing where the funds raised will be used, helps people understand how their money is being put to work. It also helps them feel more connected to the campaign and creates a greater likelihood that they will contribute. It’s equally important to spend funds on what they were raised for, find ways to show the community how they were spent, and the difference that they made. When possible, using funds for tangible items that create an emotional connection helps to better engage a broader group of participants. Two great examples of this are creating a teen area, and freshening up your children’s space.

4. Take the opportunity to multiply your gifts

The easiest time to raise funds is when you have received a substantial gift for your library. Use that gift as “seed” money and challenge your community to match the contribution. Again it is something tangible to work toward and you can visibly demonstrate how much more the community can benefit from multiplying the gift. Most libraries are non-profit entities, so donations may often be tax-deductible which can be attractive to some donors — creating the potential for larger gifts.

5. Create meaningful annual events

Some events naturally lend themselves to becoming an annual happening and can gain momentum over time if carefully developed. If your library has a foundation, they are often charged with hosting such events. But a few passionate staff members or volunteers are also capable of developing some rather memorable and successful events. It’s important that these special occasions reflect the interests of your community.

What type of event works best with your community? Successful ideas include a night out featuring food and fun, annual book sales, family events like walk-a-thons — or any other creative “a-thon.” Developing a community event that ties in local restaurants, artisans or entertainers is a great start. They might even be willing to provide in-kind food, products or services in exchange for advertising. This is merely one way of leveraging community relationships and creating a more interesting event. Silent auctions or raffles can be held in conjunction with any of these events to boost revenue even more. Friends of Libraries USA has many more creative ideas for events that can have an impact on your library’s financial situation.

6. Develop and maintain a donor database

Once you find community members who are likely contributors to your library, it’s important to keep track of them and keep your database current. Individuals or businesses that have contributed in the past are the most likely supporters into the future — they just need to be asked. Doing so on a consistent basis creates a habit that is often planned for year after year. Whether it is for an annual fund or special events, be sure to leverage the list that you develop for the basis of your successful campaigns. One of my favorite quotes that I’ve come across is, “fund-raising is not raising money; it is raising friends.” Tony Poderis states this in his article, Nine Basic Truths of Fund-raising, on It emphasizes the importance of developing relationships in successful fundraising programs. Additional thoughts on how to think about fundraising differently can be found at

7. Consider developing endowment funds

The great thing about endowment funds is they create an ongoing source of funding for whatever purpose they are raised for. Sometimes endowments are created as a way to continually have funds for updating collections. In other cases, they offer a way to provide ongoing creative programming. A great example of an endowment that is currently being created is the partnership between the Madison Community Foundation, the Endowment for the Humanities and Dane County Library Service in Wisconsin. Through this undertaking, a permanent endowment will be created to allow for more meaningful programming in libraries throughout Dane County. For more information on this program, please see the Madison Community Foundation website

8. Publicly thank your supporters

Every gift, no matter what the size, should be acknowledged in a personal and public way. A personal letter is a great way to acknowledge a gift. It can also be important to donors if their donations qualify as tax-deductible contributions. Public acknowledgments include library annual reports, foundation updates and donor walls.

Fundraising Resources

ALA Resources

Other References


Janet Nelson

Janet Nelson

Janet is the former Director of Library Engagement and Solutions at Demco. She managed and developed relationships with key industry leaders to understand changing library trends and services.