What I’ve learned from a non-librarian about fundraising for libraries

My very favorite non-librarian, of course, is my wife, Wanda. She is a fundraising consultant and has about 10 years of experience in this realm. It is a job for which I have no skill at all.

Wanda is a master networker. She can go into a room, talk to someone for 10 minutes and know everything about her: her family, her interests and hobbies, likes and dislikes and so on. The skill that enables her to achieve this result include not only a savvy question-asking ability and a good memory, but a genuine interest in the lives of others.

Although I have done effective networking in my life, I will never be able to become a fundraiser because I do not have Wanda’s last quality. Do not get me wrong, I am not particularly self-centred or unemphathetic, but I am more interested in people’s ideas than in their lives. I love to challenge and discuss ideas and I think that is part of what makes me a good librarian. I have often thought that public libraries are much about a person’s possibilities.

I wonder if this emphasis on ideas over lives is a cultural icon of all libraries. If so, it may be a challenge for libraries when they think of fundraising.

Although I will never be a good fundraiser, I am interested keenly in what Wanda does. I love to ask her general questions about how professionals do fundraising and I thought it would be interesting to share what I think I have learned. A standard disclaimer of course: these ideas are my own and not Wanda’s. The first advice I can offer is this: get a professional fundraiser — not a librarian — to handle the fundraising. It’s the difference between making a sand castle on your own or calling an architect to build you a first-class building.

  • Lesson One: Telethons, book sales and community car washes are not fundraising

Well, this is not entirely true. These sorts of activities are called “Special Events Giving.” But I say this is “not fundraising” to say that Wanda is not a telemarketer. If you think fundraisers are just telemarketers, stop now — it’s like thinking a librarian is someone who selves books.

The money that gets raised from special events is small-time in the grand scheme of things. It can boost your collection, or pay a few extra bills, but the real benefit from special events is the community support it builds, and librarians have the community support thing down-pat. In other words, bottle drives, fundraising dinners etc. keep “giving” in the minds of their community, so you can have a positive image when you go out and do “real” fundraising.

  • Lesson Two: The big bucks is to be found from community-minded individuals, not corporations

There’s no doubt that you could get some bucks from a corporation like Microsoft. The thing to remember is that Microsoft’s primary “charity” is their investors. A CEO cannot really just say “sure, have some money because you folks are a great cause.”

Think about what this means. Would you want someone to take your money and just give it away to a charity that you may or may not care about?

So, that they can engage in charitable giving, corporations usually develop giving policies. The good news is that you can read the policy and get a quick idea whether or not the institution will consider your application. The bad news is that this money may not be as much as you think and there could be strings.

The real giving comes from individuals. “Bill Gates,” you say? Well, yes. But remember that everyone knows that Bill Gates has money, so everyone will be asking him. That’s probably why he developed the Bill and Melissa Gates foundation, to help him and his wife manage their giving.

Wanda likes to recommend Thomas Stanley and William Danko’s The Millionaire Next Door to others. The thing she tries to say is that there is some good money to be found in quiet neighbourhoods. Many millionaires are millionaires because they do not have a lavish lifestyle. They choose to save their money rather than live in expensive or lavish communities. Then  they leave large bequests or gifts to an institution or charity that really tugged at their heart strings and did not forget them in their campaigns.

  • Lesson Three: Being a rich person’s friend and being an influential fundraiser are two different things

My home town, Halifax, Nova Scotia has a reputation for hosting an “old boys network,” meaning that many influential decisions are supposedly decided on golf courses, among a small group of people, usually men.  Some people think that they way to make big money (through fundraising or sales or whatnot) is to wine and dine some rich mogul, speak smoothly and suavely and then tell them they should consider parting their cash on some product or charity. This idea of an “old boys network” is very much overstated, but even if there was a group of “old boys” making decisions, this strategy is a poor approach to fundraising.

I know a few people with funds to spare. I have absolutely no influence on how they would spend their money. Think about it. How many of your not-so-rich friends would part with large chunks of their money to the library simply because you asked them to. Ok. So the occasional pin or box of cookies. Or $20 at Christmas in lieu of gifts. What about asking them to up that $20 to $1000, $5000 or $10,000?

Now how do you think that affluent person feels about you asking them to donate big cash, simply because it is your place of work and they have lots of money?

  • Fundraising is 75% research, 15% networking, 9.9% planning and 0.1% asking for money.

Ok. Think about giving $1000 to one charity. I’m saying $1000 because I know this is a fairly large (but not impossible) chunk of change from a librarian’s salary. Where is the money going to go? It’s not going to go to your friend’s charity I’ll bet — not unless that friend has demonstrated to you that that charity is going to address something that is extremely important to you.

So now think that you want to ask me, Ryan Deschamps, for $1000 for a charity.  Any one. Let’s say it is not a library for now.

What might you do?

Well, if you are smart, you will find out as much about me as you possibly can. So, you ask around, search the Internet and so on.

What kind of information do you need? Well, how about finding out what charities I donated money to previously? I believed in them before, why not now? What are my big policy interests? Community Development? Education? Health and Fitness? Young People? World Peace? What are my personal constraints? Am I renovating my house? Are my kids starting college? If so, you might consider waiting a little before asking me.

Then you might say “hello.” If you are like Wanda and have a genuine interest in the lives of people, you will ask me to talk about myself and share my interests. You might here my say something like “Man, literacy is such a big issue. Kids are coming out of school these days and they can’t even write a half decent report!” or maybe “This city needs more ideas to get things cooking” or “wow. Diabetes is such a killer, it’s so scary and yet so preventable too.”

Ding-ding-ding! You now have a better idea of what pulls my heart strings.
Once you know my interests, have met me once or twice, then you come up with an asking strategy. Are you going to call me directly or are you going to get my wife, a good friend, or a co-worker to ask me? Are you sure that $1000 is the right number to ask? Might I be willing to put more in? Might I think that $1000 is a crazy insane amount of money to put into a single charity and then not even give you $100?

After all this work — this is when you ask. And chances are, it is your only shot at my $1000. If I say “no,” you can’t really come back and ask for more or less or for support in another cause. That would just be annoying to me and I would tell you to “get lost.”

These are a few tips I have created based on the 1%  I know about Wanda’s job. My hope is that it puts a different spin on fundraising for librarians old and new.

I do have to say — yet again — get a professional to help you out with any big campaigns.

At the beginning of this entry I said I am not a good fundraiser and that might be because I am a librarian. I always think about people for their possibilities. I want to open the doors of knowledge to people so they can be what they want to be.  This is the attitude I get from alot of other librarians too.
The money collected from fundraising may be about possibilities, but the actual fundraising is not. Fundraising is about the lives of donors. A major gift (ie. not Girl Guide cookies) means something to the people who give them. It is not a social activity or an exercise in invention, but an attempt at self-actualization. It is one of the truly great ways to say “I am a human being and I care.”

Maybe marriage is a good analogy for a major gift. A major gift is a marriage to a good cause. It needs to feel like “the right thing to do” at the pledge, the point of giving, the morning after that, and for every anniversary hence from paper to diamond. People give because it makes their lives more whole. As iconic as those achievers of the “Great American Dream” appear, they are still human beings who are in need of fulfillment like everyone else. For some givers, libraries may just be the source of fulfillment they are looking for.

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