Is Your Library Lobbying? It Should Be!
How often do you hear these words: Lobbying is illegal for a non-profit organization? It’s amazing how many well-informed people have that mindset, so let’s set the record straight right now. It is totally legal for a non-profit to lobby! In fact the IRS has set up rules and regulations to help non-profits understand the guidelines surrounding non-profit lobbying. In general, a non-profit such as a Library Friends group or Library Foundation is allowed to lobby as long as it doesn’t endorse specific candidates and as long as it keeps its lobbying expenditures below 20% of its annual operating budget. There are a few other restrictions that have to do with grassroots lobbying, which we won’t address in this brief overview.
The bigger question is: why should library support organizations get involved in lobbying? The short answer is: why wouldn’t they? A library support organization’s purpose is to provide additional financial support to a library through fundraising activities, special events, and services. The private funding which is raised usually accounts for about 2-5% of the library’s budget. Getting involved in political advocacy can have a major impact on the other 95-98% of the library’s budget. Additionally, citizens make better lobbyists than library staff because they have nothing personal to gain from a larger library operating budget. Elected officials listen closely to well respected citizens who lobby for certain city/county services. These well-respected citizens are the type of individuals who are recruited to most library foundation Boards.
Getting started in political advocacy is a relatively easy activity. First and foremost is to get the approval and involvement of the Library Director and the Library Trustees. If the Friends or Foundation wishes to help the library in this way, it needs to create a standing committee: the Advocacy Committee. The perfect chair for this committee is a former elected official who is still very popular. Former elected officials should always be considered as Board members and Advocacy Committee Chairs because they can open so many doors, and they know virtually everyone in town. This is a standing committee which should be populated with not only Board members, but also with politically active citizens in the various neighborhoods. The Library Director must be a member (usually non-voting ex- officio) of this committee to be sure the committee does not veer away from the Library’s real needs.
If the Library’s fiscal year begins in January, this committee should begin its work in March or April. Monthly meetings of the committee should take place at which the Library Director describes the strongest funding needs for the Library in the coming year. Committee members can also add their concerns about funding needs. After several meetings of discussion, the committee should arrive at its “platform” for the year. The platform should be reviewed and approved by the Friends or Foundation’s governing Board. The platform can then be converted to a succinct and visually appealing “position paper” that will be presented to the elected officials and the media. The Committee Chair and the organization’s Board Chair or primary staff person should first present the platform to the Mayor or City/County Administrator in hopes that the recommendations could be included in the City/County budget. But if not, the next approach is to present the platform to each City Council Member or County Commissioner.
These appointments should be set by a constituent and accompanied by one person from the committee who will be at every appointment to guarantee the continuity of the message. Typically, the Mayor or City/County Administrator proposes their budget in August or September and the City Council or County Commissioners have until December to change or accept the originally proposed budget. The fall months are a prime time to get new Library funding added to the budget, so it’s critical that the Advocacy Committee is primed with its message before the end of summer.
Some of the support activities that take place in the fall are: scheduling meetings with each elected official; issuing press releases about the platform; attending meetings of the City or County Budget Committee; and having Board members and members of the Friends or Foundation contact their elected official in support of the advocacy platform.
There is great synergy between fundraising and political advocacy. An organization that raises millions of private dollars for the Library is held in high esteem with elected officials, and they tend to listen to recommendations from this group. It can also be a powerful incentive to offer matching funds in a political platform. If the Advocacy Committee is lobbying for an addition to the books and materials budget, there is no stronger enticement to elected officials than saying the Friends or Foundation will match any new public dollars in this part of the budget. Only a fundraising organization can make this type of offer. It is powerful and it works.
Lobbying is not only legal, it is one of the most effective ways to support the library you love. Moreover, the commitment of volunteer hours lobbying is a fraction of the hours it takes to sell used books.