Fundraising: The True Story

Caveats and advice for directors on the fundraising track Fundraising for our libraries is now part of our lives. There’s scarcely a library director today who doesn’t feel the pressure to be engaged in it. New librarians interested in becoming library directors should take heed—often, candidates for director positions are interviewed with an eye toward their potential for fundraising and then, once hired, are given financial goals. In many settings, director positions now require fundraising know-how in addition to management and librarianship skills. Fundraising often commences as the result of a project that needs support, such as a building renovation. In no time at all, the complexity of fundraising arrives with the varying personalities of donors, the related workloads, and the resources needed to bolster fundraising. Many of us begin with only partial awareness of the challenges to come. Let’s look at these challenges and possible solutions.

Great Expectations

A frequent challenge is that organizations can have unrealistic expectations about what successful fundraising really takes. For example, many of us have heard our bosses say “Why don’t you just raise funds for that?” They consider this a reasonable response to a request for financial support. Fundraising, however, doesn’t work that way. We can’t just run out, find a rich person, and ask for money. Successful efforts rest on an infrastructure specifically designed to enable fundraising. Without an infrastructure, we have to be very, very lucky. This infrastructure has many elements, including the establishment of goals and a budget; the development of public relations tools and events to interest donors; the creation of case studies to illustrate the reasons for donating; the identification of potential contributors; the strategies to encourage donations; the development of a database to track donor interests and giving histories; the stewardship of current contributors; and the building of the legal and financial infrastructure to accept gifts and bequests and to create endowments. Then there is staffing. Chief among staffing requirements is a director of development to head up the effort, along with additional support from others. Among the possible positions are a secretary, an event organizer to plan programs, a writer to develop grant proposals and publications, and a graphics designer to enhance the many communications tools to interest donors. If you see fundraising in your future, consider asking for capital to develop the infrastructure to support the effort. While you may not get all you need, discussing the true costs of fundraising will transform the conversation from the simple to the sophisticated. Serious fundraising requires a serious commitment of resources.


Just like librarianship, fundraising is a profession with its own body of knowledge and best practices. However, some libraries cannot afford a professional, so the position often falls to someone in-house. The challenge is that the education of librarians rarely consists of training for fundraising. If you find yourself with that newly designated assignment, look for professional groups for instruction and learn from people who have like responsibilities. Two sources of self-education include ALADN: The Academic Library Advancement and Development Network and the Public Library Association.

Uncomfortable feelings

Another challenge is that not all librarians have an orientation to or even a liking for fundraising. It’s not one of the compelling reasons we enter the field. Asking for money, other than from our bosses and our boards, can be very uncomfortable. However, in order to be successful, we need to get past the feelings of shyness or embarrassment that can accompany monetary requests. One of the best ways to counter these feelings is to turn our focus completely away from ourselves and toward the true goal of fundraising: to strengthen the endlessly good work of libraries.

Annual targets

Usually, fundraising goals are set by the parent organization of the library. Annually, we start at zero and steadily work toward that amount even if last year was the biggest year raising money we ever had. Worse, a successful year often leads to even higher goals. “What have you done for me lately?” is a question that might as well be asked. Turning the counter to zero doesn’t seem fair, but, in fundraising, yesterday is truly past. The great challenge is that fundraising is a rollercoaster of success and failure that doesn’t fit neatly into a single year. While there is a direct correlation between effort and success, much is beyond our control. After all, we don’t structure donors’ lives or the economy that affects them. The only realistic response is to enjoy the highs of fundraising and persevere through the lows.

Workload impact

Fundraising brings another often unacknowledged challenge: increased workload. The average library director’s week is filled with seeing people and taking care of the library and community and professional responsibilities. Add fundraising, and the director’s days now include contacts with or events for potential or current donors as well as meetings with staff to discuss strategies and issues. In short, the director’s workload rises significantly. Anyone starting fundraising has to balance the normal duties of the job with the new duties. To meet this challenge, consider this important piece of advice: establish clear goals for fundraising and work on the highest priorities only.

Gifts with conditions

Some fear that fundraising will upset the library’s mission: a donor comes along with a large gift that has a condition that conflicts with the library’s goals. For example, take a library with a building project under way. A donor pledges significant funds that are contingent upon changes to the building plans that are not in the library’s best interests. What do you do? Look at both sides of this issue. On the cost side, a gift that’s outside the library’s priorities may eventually consume resources better used elsewhere. Off-target gifts can eventually become serious problems. On the benefit side, media attention about one large gift can inspire other donors to give to the library, too. Remember, you can walk away from gifts. It isn’t easy, but a gift with downstream problems is no gift at all. If you are told to accept the gift despite your explanation of your concerns, do your best with the donor to shape the gift to meet some of your needs and accept graciously. We never really know what tomorrow will bring.

Donor cultivation

Another common challenge stems from naïveté about the availability of rich patrons. Yes, rich people are everywhere, but they aren’t necessarily interested in our priorities. True, there are those unexpected, once-in-a-lifetime gifts. We can celebrate these events, but we should not base any fundraising strategy on it. Realistically, it takes years to cultivate major donors. First, we have to find them through interest generated by events, publications, Friends of the Library and community groups, and a growing network of contacts. Once we have identified potential donors, then we have to build relationships over time—and that “time” can be many years. Even after the “request” for funds is made and funds are given, the relationship must be maintained. Fundraising requires extended concentration and effort.

Everything but money

The best gifts are from a donor who underwrites a library priority such as creating an endowment to support the collection. We should focus on obtaining such cash gifts, but, remember, receiving physical things is by far fundraising’s largest activity. Everything comes our way, everything it seems except money, that is. There are used books but also furniture, equipment, artworks, etc. Many of these are welcome. However, we need infrastructure to receive gifts—to record and process the material and then either add it to the library, dispose of it, or resell it. Many libraries set limits on in-kind contributions—a wise practice. However, if you get frustrated by the quantity and quality of in-kind donations, consider that you never know where these gifts may lead. We should stay in contact with these donors and think of them as part of the ever-growing circle of donors. Also remember that in-kind gifts usually count toward annual fundraising goals, which can be very helpful in leaner years.

Donors who are friends

Special challenges arise when donors become friends. Over time, fundraisers and donors often become part of one another’s extended social circle. We must never forget that we are still at work: the donor isn’t the person with whom to share deeply personal information or the most recent gossip. The hardest part of becoming friends with donors is that many are elderly. No one tells us that fundraising also involves visiting the sick, seeing the ravages of disease, or grieving the loss of a much beloved contributor. Fundraising might begin with strategies, but it is transformed by our engagement with our fellow human beings.

Donors who are challenges

On the other hand, some donors present serious challenges. They can range from publicity hounds seeking attention to the disturbed, whose behavior runs from inappropriate to criminal. The history of fundraising contains all of the above. The bottom line is to listen to your instincts. Always check out anything that seems odd, and never be in a hurry to accept any gift—especially one that looks too good to be true. Do your homework about the donor and the gift. A different kind of challenge is the elderly person who is affluent but lonely and without the mental acuity that he or she once possessed. Such a person can be an easy target for any fundraiser. However, regardless of the pressure to raise funds, there is a limit. If you think you are in an organization where there are no reservations, dust off your résumé, for big trouble is sure to follow.

Staff turnover

The average job tenure for a development director is about three years—an industrywide issue. Turnover presents a serious problem, particularly when the development program is mature. When a development director leaves, the program often slumps because the relationships with donors are not actively maintained. It takes a new person a while to build the relationships back up. However, it points out the importance of engaging more than one person in maintaining those relationships.

Keep your eye on the ball

With these challenges, is fundraising worth it? On the one hand, there is the opportunity for some spectacular gifts that support and enrich our libraries. On the other hand, there can be considerable expense, effort, and frustration. The important thing is to keep a balanced view. Fundraising must exist to help strengthen our libraries. It may be a demanding activity, but it cannot be our central focus. As always, we have to keep our eye on the ball and, in our world, that means quality service to our users. Other than that, enjoy the process. We often meet people who have lived fascinating lives, see rare and unusual collections, visit beautiful homes, and have many interesting experiences we’d never have without fundraising.
Susan C. Curzon, Ph.D., is Dean, University Library, California State University, Northridge. She is LJ’s 1993 Librarian of the Year.
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