7 Unconventional Library Fundraisers That Worked (And May Work for You)

 In Foundations, Friends, Fundraising

While there is no good substitute for fundraising fundamentals – such as a strong end-of-year annual appeal – a little outside-the-box thinking can do a lot to stoke donations and pad your library’s budget. We want to share with you seven of our favorite ideas for unconventional fundraising. All have turned a profit and offer replicable models. If not a blueprint for your own success, these will at least get your team’s creative juices flowing!

1) Foodie Festivities / Wine Tastings

Author C.S. Lewis claimed that “Eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably.” Libraries and library support organizations across the country are finding this to be very true indeed. Take, for example, the Brookfield Public Library in Illinois. For the past decade, staff have orchestrated Taste of Brookfield. Each year, they partner with restaurants across town to bring in tapas and samplers representing a wide range of cuisines. Tickets start at $45, and the event regularly attracts more than 200 attendees. Wine tastings are no less popular. Friends of the Salisbury (MA) Public Library, Bethel (CT) Public Library, and Indian Valley Public Library in Telford, PA are among those that seemingly have this down to a science. Check out their websites for details.

2) Races and “Fun Runs”

Nonprofits of all types and stripes will tell you that races (competitive and otherwise) can be an excellent way to generate funds. In addition to charging a fee to participants, you can hunt corporate sponsors – as well as solicit in-kind support from other community partners in order to minimize your expenses. Standouts worth mentioning – both in terms of sponsorship success and for sheer creativity in naming – include “Word on the Street,” benefiting the Verona (WI) Public Library, and “Bookin’ It Fun Run,” benefiting the Corvallis-Benton County (OR) Public Library. Note that this one can be hard to pull off without adequate support from key civic stakeholders, including local government. Forge strong partnerships with the city’s parks and recreation department, the area’s chamber of commerce, and other such organizations as early as you can.

3) Live Music Events

Looking for a way to do away with the “shushing librarian” stereotype once and for all? Consider hosting a live music event. If you do it right, patrons will gladly pay a modest cover charge to attend. Examples are myriad, proving this is not an idea only for the largest library markets. In terms of sheer diversity of musical genres, no one can beat the Finkelstein Memorial Library in Spring Valley, NY. In 2017, their indoors series will showcase everything from R&B, to a capella, opera, gypsy music, and even a “harmonica virtuoso.” Take note that paid admission is not a requirement for such an event to be a fundraising boon. Once people are in the room and enjoying themselves, you can solicit donations – and perhaps even parlay attendance at the free event into Friend of the Library memberships like The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library’s “Loud at the Library” series.

4) Library Mini Golf

While it may sound laughable at first pass, in-library mini golf courses are increasingly popular. As a fundraising strategy, their popularity is owed to the Trumbull (CT) Public Library. In 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the nascent Trumbull Library Foundation staged a mini golf course to raise money for devastated libraries along the Gulf Coast. (Golf and gulf, get it?) Attendance and revenue exceed expectations, allowing them to donate $40,000 in unrestricted aid to the Waveland (MS) Library. They have since ‘packaged’ their model; you can read all the details at libraryminigolf.com. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster, take comfort in the experience of the Downers Grove Library (IL). When Downers Grove coordinated their first 18-hole tournament in 2012, more than 400 people turned out to participate. Staff found guests respectful of the facility, and reported no damage whatsoever to the building or materials.

5) Board Game Tournaments

While we don’t have statistics to back it up, it seems safe to say that bibliophiles have an affinity for word games, as well. Organizations like the Santa Cruz County Public Law Library have capitalized on this. Santa Cruz hosts an annual Scrabble tournament, which regularly brings in over $5,000 to benefit the library and adjoining juvenile court facility. Pay-to-play Scrabble tourneys benefiting the local library can also be found in Escondido, CA, in Brooklyn, NY, and in many points in between. Scrabble not your game? Not to worry. In a similar vein, our own Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library hosts the annual Minnesota Crossword Tournament, and the Friends of the Arlington Public Library (VA) hosts a Puzzle Festival (crosswords and sudoku) each year.

6) (Adults Only) Book-Themed Parties

We’ve already mentioned how hors d’oeuvres and wine samplers are a surprisingly effective yet simple way to draw would-be-donors into the library’s orbit. Themed parties are the next logical step. For instance, each year, the Friends of the Pelham (NY) Public Library orchestrate a series called “Novel Night.” Setting this fundraiser apart from the bunch is the ‘novel’ fact that party-goers literally have no idea what they are signing up for, aside from price point and literary theme. They learn the venue, site hosts, and itinerary that same day! If you prefer to host your adult-only parties inside of the library, take inspiration from Friends of Ramsey County (MN) Libraries, who hold an annual F. Scott Fitzgerald-themed “Great Gatsby Gala” party, and Friends of Racine (WI) Library, who host successful adults-only murder mystery parties after hours.

7) “Non Event” Events

Let’s not forget the introverts. For some people, the best fundraising event is no event at all. As an example, the Library Foundation of Los Angeles pioneered the tongue-in-cheek “Stay Home and Read a Book Ball.” Participants are encouraged to hole up at home with a good book – solo but in solidarity with other bibliophiles across the city. In the run up to the big day, in lieu of a “reservation,” the Foundation encourages participants to make a financial pledge to the Library online. Other communities have added their own spin to this non-event. Johnson County (KS) Library recruited novelist Gillian Flynn as unofficial chairman of their Stay Home and Read a Book Ball, and added a social media hashtag. North of the border, the Friends of the Vancouver Public Library fleshed out their Stay Home event with librarian-curated reading recommendations and other tie-in resources.  It’s unlikely to be your biggest fundraiser, but it’s undoubtedly one of the most cost effective.

Thinking outside the box yet? We don’t necessarily expect you to adopt any of these models wholesale, but do hope you take to heart that there are fundraising opportunities beyond the tried-and-true used book sales and silent auction.

Aware of other unconventional library fundraisers we should know about? Give us a shout!

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