Found Money | Budgets & Funding

When bequests are managed from donors who have been identified for years, foundations and libraries know that certain funds are coming and why. But occasionally a quiet patron, someone who perhaps hasn’t drawn attention to themselves, can be one of the most generous of benefactors.

How four lucky libraries made the most of unexpected windfalls

Michael Guty kept mostly to himself at the Otis Library in Norwich, CT. The then-octogenarian would show up on Friday afternoons, pick up “Morningstar” reports and the Wall Street Journal, and occasionally make small talk with the reference librarians. But primarily Guty would sit with the papers, alone, content to peruse the stock reports in peace.

When the library moved across the street in 2006, Guty never returned. Fast-forward ten years, and a letter arrives from attorneys—along with a gift from Guty’s estate of $3 million.

“He always said he had money, but a lot of people say they have money,” says Robert Farwell, Otis Library’s director since 2006, though he started working at the library in 2003. “We believe in good customer service and obviously he liked our customer service. But we were staggered by the generosity.”

Public libraries commonly court donations for their branches. Many—from large systems such as the New York or St. Paul public libraries, down to single-branch systems such as the one in Princeton, NJ—have foundations or development staff or both to focus on soliciting such contributions, including planned bequests. The American Library Association suggests language to help public libraries approach the topic with potential donors.

When bequests are managed from donors who have been identified for years, foundations and libraries know that certain funds are coming and why. But occasionally a quiet patron, someone who perhaps hasn’t drawn attention to themselves, can be one of the most generous of benefactors.

Guty is one such example. And for the Otis Library, the funds couldn’t have come at a better time, allowing the branch to expand services it couldn’t extend when it originally reopened because of the recession.

The money went to restoring hours and replacing lighting fixtures with energy-efficient options. A new position, for a multicultural services supervisor, is also being considered to help provide materials and do more outreach to “new American communities” in the neighborhood, Farwell says, including people from Haiti, China, and Peru.

Guty never made note to Farwell or others that he had planned for the library to be mentioned in his estate. “But apparently he had an affinity for the library,” says Farwell. “And continued to think well enough of us to make sure we stayed in his will.”

Even New York gets surprises

One way to woo potential donors is to follow the New York Public Library (NYPL) Foundation’s efforts and throw a tea. Every May, the Planned Giving organization for NYPL holds such an event for current donors and those who have made promises of financial planning to the institution. These dovetail with the ten to 12 gift-planning seminars the foundation also holds annually.

“They’re educational,” says John Bacon, the director of Planned Giving and a former trusts and estate attorney. “We get people who come in and sure enough plan to give to benefit the library.” But Bacon says that while he and his team are dedicated full-time to helping identify and assist potential donors, many gifts still come through the door that are a complete surprise. “Even big gifts come over the transom.”

Bacon recalls a woman who spent her entire life in Colorado, only visiting New York as a young woman, but she left a $2 million gift to the library when she died. Another sizable donation came from Charles Mauro, says Bacon, who had made “modest” gifts during his lifetime. Yet after his death, NYPL received half his estate—$5 million. Then there was Lotte Field, whose largest single gift of $1,000 during her lifetime did not prefigure the $7 million bequest she would leave the library.

Bacon notes that often funds given to the foundation are deposited into NYPL’s existing endowment and used as the organization sees fit. At other times, gifts are dedicated to a specific branch.

NYPL’s Jefferson Market branch, which dots a small block in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, is a particular ­favorite of donors. A New York City landmark, the 1870s cut stone building was once a courthouse and features stained glass windows and a bell tower that still chimes the time; a garden—complete with koi pond—is nestled in the back.

Recently, Percy Corcoran, an active member of Manhattan’s Battery Park City neighborhood, left $500,000 for improvements to NYPL’s Battery Park City Library, which she’d championed to get built in her lifetime. Bacon says she mentioned in her papers a wish to have a decorative water fountain added to the branch with her funds.

“But it’s just a suggestion,” says Bacon, rather than a binding requirement. “Her wish is that the branch is loved [by] future patrons. So that is wonderful.”

Omaha’s unexpected gIVER

In Omaha, Virginia C. Schmid left a sizable bequest to the Omaha Public Library’s (OPL) A.V. Sorenson Branch in October 2015, but the reason behind her $1 million gift was never explained. “She and her husband were very philanthropic,” says Wendy Townley, development director for the OPL Foundation, which raises about ten percent to 15 percent of OPL’s annual budget. “We asked around a bit, and her sole connection with the library was that she lived in the neighborhood for a while.”

Schmid’s estate instructed the foundation not to use the funds for what is called “ordinary expenses,” or as a substitute for its annual budget. Instead, the gift is to go toward improvements, such as upgrading the space. Spending $1 million is not going to be a simple task for the branch, which opened in 1976, says Townley. In a neighborhood surrounded by residences, the branch shares its location with the City of Omaha Parks and Recreation Department, which occupies the ground floor. The branch is housed up on the second floor. “There are serious considerations to be made,” says Townley. “There’s not a lot of room to expand up, down, or around.”

Brattleboro’s thrifty benefactor

Expansion is exactly what’s on the table for the Brooks Memorial Library (BML) in Brattleboro, VT. A $1.2 million gift from Ronald Read’s estate is going to be used to change the physical layout of the more than 140-year-old branch. The library tapped the funds to expand its hours and started planning a room for teen patrons.

As with OPL, the gift from Read came out of the blue. Few who had met him believed he had any money until his estate announced the $1.2 million gift to BML, along with $4.8 million to the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.

Eventually, librarians began to recall the older, thrifty man in the threadbare clothes who would come to check out books. They also remembered a neighbor who’d stop by the branch to get mysteries and thrillers as Read got older.

Read only discovered the library in his 80s, says Jerry Goldberg, the library board’s president at the time the bequest was announced. The hospital’s director of development, Gina Pattison, met Read after seeing him eat an English muffin with peanut butter every morning in the hospital’s cafeteria. Read was by then already retired, with time on his hands, and Pattison encouraged him to spend some of his days reading books. But the library never expected to be mentioned in his will. Now, however, he’s unlikely ever to be forgotten.

“How awesome is it to have a benefactor with the last name of Read?” says Starr Latronica, library director for BML. “It’s magic.”

Preparing for the unexpected

While there are certainly best practices to follow when approaching possible donors, there are also ways to prepare for unknown financial gifts—even if you don’t know when, where, or how much might be coming or from whom.

The OPL Foundation’s Townley says branches should keep a wish list, just in case. When Mary Belle Soener died in 2014, her three daughters—Nancy Soener, Elizabeth Soener O’Connor, and Joan Soener Wilson—wanted to do something for the Willa Cather Branch as they remembered their mother taking them there to read books. The branch happened to need bookshelves, the request was made, and the daughters responded.

“I can get a phone call from a donor saying [they] want to give a certain branch some money and what does it need,” says Townley. “I get that call routinely, so I encourage branch managers to put lists together.”

Finally, just keep doing your job. Since an unexpected gift is just that, the best plan is to make sure all patrons feel welcome and served. Being available to anyone who walks through the doors, finding ways to link people to books and stories and to open their eyes to another idea or thought, is the ultimate way to give to the members of your community—who may one day give back to you.

Lauren Barack (, a frequent contributor to School Library Journal, is a recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism

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