Library Fundraising: The Importance of Storytelling

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It seems bizarre now, but if I think back to March, there was a prevailing feeling that COVID was just going to crash upon us like a hurricane. There was a similar feeling that this new world required the same kind of immediate response from organizations. We needed to get out there and “meet the moment,” and it caused a peculiar panic response for many in the fundraising world. Now that we’re deep in the long haul, knowing that it is not a matter of meeting a single moment, but a series of moments, our fundraising team at The Friends has settled into something resembling routine. I called up our head of development, Greg Giles, to chat about what he’s noticed.

The first thing he pointed out was the success we’ve had with gifts from folks who were already close to us. The established relationships, made over years of donor cultivation, kept The Friends front of mind for individuals who understand the library is important even in – especially in – a crisis like this. Again and again, Greg returned to the success of our ability to tell the story of the library with objective clarity, instead of jumping immediately to the worst case scenario. You know your library. You know the stories you need to tell. In spite of how different the world feels, the process is the same.

The second piece that really struck me in my conversation with Greg was something I have been hearing in many of my circles – “There is no back to the way it was.” We are six months into pandemic-isolation, and we have learned that there are some benefits of this new world.

The Friends took our Book Awards ceremony virtual, and what had been excitement about getting 900 people into a theater auditorium became excitement that we had used technology to reach 4000. [Insert Greg making “mind blown” gesture here.] The experience permanently changed the way we think about reaching people.

The pandemic has expanded the set of tools we have to stay front of mind for potential donors. Someone who might not have seen any Friends programming before this year can do so. We have been holding Zoom chats with Friends president, Beth Burns. These are informal opportunities for sharing library stories and asking questions. We may someday go back to the much more alliterative “Breakfast with Beth,” but video chat will be useful when the inevitable Minnesota winter makes us all loathe to leave our homes. I had a friend say recently that we should look for “moments to celebrate, not commiserate.” It is true, there are many things we are not doing right now, but there are ways in which what we can do is worth celebrating.

I left my conversation with Greg Giles feeling like I could go out and raise funds for the Saint Paul Public Library. If you have need of the same kind of grounded, practical advice, please reach out. Greg loves to talk about this stuff, and you will absolutely be left feeling like it is not so daunting.

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