Why Can’t We All Just Get Along

 In Boards, Foundations, Friends

Public libraries are among the few institutions that have not one, but two different organizations to help support them: Friends of Libraries and library foundations. It would seem that these two organizations would work together in harmony, but all too often that’s not the case.

Friends groups typically serve libraries with volunteer activities, programming, membership, newsletters, and advocacy. They are usually volunteer driven with a hands-on Board of Directors helping with projects such as used book sales. While Friends groups have been a mainstay of support for many years, the level of financial support they generate is not high enough to meet all of the needs libraries have for private funding. Because of that, a new type of support organization has been created.

A library foundation differs significantly. First, the foundation tends to have a paid staff of fundraising professionals. The Board of Directors of a foundation tends to be influential individuals well connected in their communities. Foundations take on the higher-level fundraising from individuals, foundations, and corporations raising, in many cases, millions of dollars of support each year, while also creating endowment funds for future stability and support of their library.

It would appear that these support organizations have their own clear-cut mission and activities and that operating side-by-side should be a simple task. The reality can sometimes be quite different.

There are a few common areas in which Friends and foundation activities can intersect. For instance, both organizations may choose to do some level of public programming. A Friends group may choose local authors for free public programs at the library, while a foundation may bring in high profile authors that involve paying an honorarium and potentially charging for individuals to attend.

Another area of intersection is with Friends members and foundation donors. Individuals who become Friends of the Library pay a very modest membership fee to the Friends. Many Friends groups choose to only ask their members to make this one annual contribution. However, in libraries with a foundation working along with the Friends, the foundation may want to ask Friends members to make larger contributions at year-end as part of an annual solicitation.

A third area of intersecting activities is political advocacy. Both support organizations should have an interest in being advocates for the Library. Friends Board members may not have personal relationships with local elected officials, but certainly care passionately about the library and its budgets. Foundation Board members, on the other hand, may have strong ties to these officials through their responsibilities in corporations and other civic activities. Both of these Board members can play a significant role in an advocacy effort, but need to coordinate roles to create a seamless advocacy platform.

Even with well-defined roles for the two organizations, the potential for conflict can always exist. Each of the organizations needs to compete for the best possible members to its Board of Directors. All nonprofit organizations have difficulty finding and recruiting the best possible Board members, but when two organizations are present for the same library, tension tends to arise.

The library director and library staff also need to provide time and involvement in the activities of a Friends group and foundation, but in many cases, a library director may not have time to be heavily involved in both. When that’s the case, typically, the Friends group loses out in that the library director needs to spend the majority of their time in the activities that will result in the largest infusion of private dollars to the library’s budget.

Even the longevity of the two organizations can, in and of itself, create strain. In every case, a Friends of Library group has been present far longer than a library foundation. There may be some hurt feelings on the part of the Friends group, feeling that they’ve been supporting the library for years, and the upstart foundation has just arrived on the scene and has gotten so much more attention for their efforts.

Luckily there are ways to minimize the potential conflict between a Friends and foundation. First, as a library foundation is being created, it is important to involve the Friends in the discussions of the structure of the new entity. The Friends need to be fully aware that the role they play will not be threatened and that the library will continue to need the services of a robust Friends organization.

The second way to minimize conflict is having the Friends and foundation sign letters of agreement about their fundraising responsibilities. This may sound very formal for organizations which tend to operate fairly casually, but in some situations this may be essential to understand the roles of each group.

The third way to minimize conflict is prior to the formation of a foundation, a policy should be developed on the use of the Friends membership lists. This is probably one of the most controversial issues between a Friends group and a foundation. Friends groups are reluctant to turn their lists over to the foundation for additional fundraising for fear that the foundation will conduct its fundraising activities in an aggressive manner. The reality is Friends members are prime candidates to be considered for planned gifts to the library. Friends organizations will not be capable of pursuing this from their membership, while the library foundation has a professional fundraising staff who are familiar with this type of solicitation and donor interaction.

Another way to minimize conflict is having members of each Board of Friends and foundations and trustees sit ex-officio on one another’s Boards for communication purposes. If an individual from the Friends sits ex-officio on the foundation Board, he or she can report to the foundation Board on what’s happening at the Friends and conversely bring back to the Friends information about the activities of the foundation. It may also be worth considering having one meeting each year in which the full Board of the Friends and the full Board of the foundation come together for at least a portion of a joint meeting to have a full understanding of what each organization is doing.

And finally, careful wording of communications from each group can clearly state what purpose the other group has which is complementary. For instance, when the foundation conducts a solicitation at the end of the year for a contribution, they may wish to say in their letter of solicitation: “Thank you for making a membership contribution to the Friends earlier this year. Your membership in the Friends is essential and helps us develop a base of support and advocacy for our library. At this time of the year, we’d like to ask you, as a member of the Friends, to make a generous contribution to our year-end fundraising campaign to support the summer reading program, the collection, and other special programs.”

This type of message can help the community understand the differences between the Friends and the foundation. Alleviating that confusion can be critical in getting people to continue their support of both organizations.

There are a number of libraries that have chosen to merge their Friends and foundation into one 501c3 nonprofit. This is a decision that needs careful consideration. The conditions that may lead libraries to this structure are local in nature and vary widely. There’s no set formula for when and how Friends and foundations should merge. Some of the benefits that have been noted, however, from merged Friends and foundations are the following.

  • Less confusion in the general public about the distinction between the two organizations.
  • The ability to solicit members more than one time per year for higher financial support.
  • Combining advocacy activities with the ability to provide matching funds, which increases the effectiveness of an advocacy effort.
  • A higher profile, robust organization providing support for the library.

If a decision is made to merge, the process should be one in which both organizations are given ample opportunity to discuss their concerns and their desires for the activities which will be ongoing after the merger. In spite of the potential advantages of a merged organization, it may not be the right path for all Friends and foundations. There are many Friends and foundations that work side-by-side in a very collaborative fashion accomplishing wonderful advocacy, programming, and fundraising for their libraries.

Friends and foundations have provided support for our libraries for many years. Each delivers vital services and activities that our libraries have come to rely upon. Whether those activities are done separately in two organizations or jointly in a merged organization, they need to be done with care and in a way that the community will fully understand and support. After all, the ultimate goal of these organizations is to rally support for libraries, involve more individuals in libraries, and help them to become stronger institutions meeting our community’s needs even better.

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