The New Fundraising Landscape | Budgets & Funding

LIBRARY JOURNAL — January 6, 2016 — Public libraries in the United States have traditionally relied on local support for the vast majority of their revenue. While this is still largely true, the funding landscape is getting more diverse, and there is a greater need for libraries to be increasingly creative when it comes to balancing base funding with new sources. Money allocated at the local level rarely stretches far enough to cover staffing, operations, collection development, and programming, let alone experimentation to invent or test innovative new services. Local funding is also subject to political winds as administrations change.

State and even federal funding are also subject to the inconsistencies of a shifting political landscape, and libraries have yet to secure a permanent place at the table when it comes to budget-making decisions at either level. Grants from private organizations interested in promoting libraries and cultural institutions—or the positive impact libraries can deliver—can be a great source of money for pilot programs, but these funds are finite in scope and unlikely to be available for long-term sustainable support. Increasingly, libraries need to be their own best advocates across all sectors to put together a winning mix.

This new fundraising landscape was at the forefront of the conversation at LJ’s Directors’ Summit, which convened in Washington, DC, in November 2015. Leaders of local, state, and federal systems were joined by experts from private foundations in an energetic discussion of the evolving funding ecosystem’s challenges and opportunities, as well as how best to push for today’s libraries while building a sustainable future.


The process of approaching politicians or foundations for funding can give libraries the opportunity to define—or redefine—their larger mission. Resources such as the 2014 Aspen Institute Report, “Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries,” are invaluable as templates for libraries to outline their strengths and alignments. Jacobs notes that, as a funder, the Gates Foundation places a strong emphasis on libraries’ roles within their communities….


Locally based and family foundations can be key players in this mix. For instance, the Charles H. Revson Foundation, a New York City–based charitable organization with a focus on urban affairs and education, expanded into library funding thanks to the efforts of president Julie Sandorf. When she arrived at Revson in 2008, she found that decades of physical neglect, reduced hours, and budget woes had left New York City’s three library systems disconnected from one another and the wider public policy discourse.

Revson commissioned the Center for an Urban Future, an NYC-based public policy think tank, to produce two reports: “Branches of Opportunity” in 2013 and “Re-Envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries” in 2014. These became the data underpinning the city’s library advocacy efforts. In addition, in 2013 the foundation launched the NYC Neighborhood Library Awards, which invited residents to nominate their neighborhood branches through narrative stories about their service to the community. “Part of our point was building public awareness,” says Sandorf, “recognizing what wonderful work was being done in communities that had never been recognized before.” In 2015, more than 13,000 nominations poured in, and as the FY16 budget review period approached, in the face of a threatened $10 million budget cut, allies around the city had compelling recent research to point to as they rallied an outreach initiative on behalf of the city’s libraries. (See LJ’s coverage here.)

EveryLibrary’s Chrastka also recommends the power of stories when it comes to those who trend toward Yes votes for libraries but need reassurance. “They will vote for you,” he says, because “those folks are the nostalgic ones.” However, “they also need an update about the work you do every day.”

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