The original Friends group at the Huntley Area Public Library began almost 25 years ago when the library district was formed. A book club of about 20 book lovers started the Friends group. Four years ago the original group disbanded and a new Friends Foundation was formed so the group could expand its fundraising efforts. Today’s Friends Foundation functions as both Friends and fundraisers. I serve as the staff liaison to the Friends. The group is led by a nine member board of directors. A member of the Library Board of Directors attends the Friends board meetings. Membership has grown to about 260 and the group raises $50,000+ yearly. Fundraising has expanded from hosting book sales to breakfast and tea fundraisers, mini-links in the library, and Library Lover auctions and events. Following are some of my thoughts and suggestions for starting a Friends group.
Decide what function the group will have – advocacy, volunteering, or fundraising? Will library staff support the group or will the Friends be independent, move books and do their own promotions? These questions should guide who you recruit. If you want fundraisers, do not apologize for seeking fundraising individuals. You are raising funds to support a vital community resource.
Be patient. Growing a group will take time and effort. Start by building a dedicated core group. Look for potential members in book clubs and at library programs. Ask your staff for the names of patrons who are regular library users and supporters. Most importantly, ASK individuals to be Friends. Encourage your recruits to recruit their friends. Treat each and every recruit with respect and make them feel needed and appreciated. Friends are volunteers and to retain a volunteer their work should be meaningful, they need to feel appreciated, and there should be a social aspect to the volunteer work to keep everyone coming back. Our Friends groups likes to say they put the fun in fundraising, which is why they keep volunteering!
There are a few legal considerations when starting a Friends group. Whether you decide to apply for 501(c)(3) status or simply register as a charitable organization with the state, legal considerations are important. The advantage of seeking 501(c)(3) status for our group was that we were able to apply for and received grants that benefit the library. Follow state and federal laws, register the group and file and pay appropriate taxes. I recommend finding an attorney and an accountant who will donate their time to help you sort through the laws and regulations if you need help. Groups that fundraise may owe Illinois state sales tax on book sales or the sale of items, whether the group has state and federal tax exemption or not. While I wish our group did not have to pay state sales tax on book sales, we do because it is the law. Don’t let the legal and tax considerations dissuade you from starting a Friends group. The benefits to a library in terms of volunteers, fundraising capacity and the good will and advocacy a Friends’ group provide outweigh the other issues.
There are many things staff and group can do to help themselves grow. First, word of mouth, or talking about the group helps spread the word. Staff and Friends should be encouraged to talk about the Friends whenever possible. There is no substitute for making a personal connection and asking others to join the Friends. This holds true for fundraising, too. Make a personal connection. People will join and make donations because you took the time to make the connection. People give to people, not causes (Bray, 2010, p. 33).
More thoughts about getting started and sustaining a vibrant Friends group.
- Build a database of names. Collect names and addresses whenever possible. A Friends group will not survive without a donor database, even if you use that database for nothing more than to recruit volunteers and advertise book sales. If the group does not grow, it will fail. Use the list to recruit volunteers to help with fundraisers or to help at library functions. This is the beginning of your fundraising database. Our group started with an Excel spreadsheet and now uses Access for our database. There are other fundraising software programs that might fit your needs better.
- Membership Fees. Will you collect annual membership fees? We do because it helps grow our database and it is a source of fundraising. You decide. Individual memberships for our Friends start at $10 a year. We offer individual lifetime memberships for $100 and Corporate Lifetime Memberships for $250. We are inclusive, though, and anyone can join for free if the fee is too high.
- Book Sales. Book sales provide the library a way to recycle its discards and give patrons an avenue for disposing of unwanted books while helping the library raise money. An added benefit of hosting book sales is that it demonstrates social responsibility. With the growing electronic books market, our Friends group saw a decrease in overall book sales two years ago but this year’s sales were even with last. That could change, but for now it is our number one fundraiser. We raised $22,425 last year in book sales that included bi-monthly sales in a small program room and ongoing Corner Books sales in the library. We also recycle books for money through Discover Books*.
- Promote your group. Create a brand for your group by developing a logo, even a simple one, and use it on all materials. A website and a Facebook presence are helpful when you are able to expand your promotional efforts. Your core group should consider developing a formal strategic plan that evaluates resources and competition and develops a mission and vision statement to help the group stay focused.
- Connect with other Friends Groups. In northern Illinois Friends groups have formed a group, NIRF (Northern Illinois Regional Friends). We meet quarterly at libraries in the region. We share information about recruiting friends, fundraising, and discuss book sale issues. It is a great way to meet other like-minded Friends and offer support to each other. At this group we discovered several of us participate in Farmers’ Market events. What a great place to meet local people and promote your library!
Building a Friends group will take time and patience but it is worth the effort whether your goal is to gain volunteers, raise funds, advocate for the library or all three. I welcome your comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pamela Kampwerth is the Head of Volunteer and Outreach Services at the Huntley Area Public Library.
You can learn more about the Huntley Area Public Library Friends group by going to their web site, www.huntleylibraryfriends.org, or visiting their Facebook page, at http://www.facebook.com/huntleyfriends.
You can contact NIRF (Northern Illinois Regional Friends) through their blog, https://nirfblog.wordpress.com/contact-nirf.
Bray, Ilona. (2010). Effective fundraising for nonprofits: Real-world strategies that work. (3rd ed.). Berkeley, CA: Nolo.