What your donors (and would-be donors) wish you knew

Andrew Carnegie by cliff1066 / CC-BY

Andrew Carnegie by Flickr use cliff1066 (CC BY 2.0)

by Brett Bonfield

A few months back, someone emailed In the Library with the Lead Pipe asking if we could recommend an online course that could give her an overview of library responsibilities. She was about to start working at a K-12 school and, though she had no library experience, part of her job included running the library.

An aspect of librarians’ déformation professionnelle is the mistaken idea that people who don’t work in libraries realize there are library-specific degrees. Those of us who have earned our degrees want the world to value them the way we do, especially if we’re still paying off student loans. Wouldn’t you be just a little bit disappointed if all of your master’s degree coursework could be summarized in a single online course? And if it could, wouldn’t that make us sort of stupid for wasting all that time and money learning the art and science of librarianship?1

Another part of our déformation professionnelle is that we make assumptions about other professions that are similar to the one our correspondent made about librarianship, especially professions that don’t typically involve degrees or licenses, such as fundraising. It isn’t that we don’t appreciate the importance of getting donations: since I started working as a librarian, the topic my colleagues in the profession have been most interested in having me teach them about is fundraising. I’ve spent much of my professional life in fundraising, so it’s a natural request. But what many people don’t seem to realize is that it’s just as difficult to summarize what fundraisers do as it is to summarize what librarians do.

This article is not intended to be a complete summary of fundraising. Instead, it’s meant to put you in the right frame of mind to help your organization raise more money. And it’s intended for everyone who works in libraries, not just the people whose job description usually includes fundraising. I hope we all agree that everyone who works in a library needs to work together if the library is going to function most effectively. For instance, everyone should be able to answer basic questions and communicate important policies. Fundraising is the same way: it’s not going to work nearly as well if only one person in the organization, or one department, is solely responsible for cultivating and stewarding donations.

There are multiple economies

Many people assume that nonprofits raise less money in bad economies. This isn’t necessarily the case; in fact, it’s possible that the opposite is true. G. Douglas Alexander, co-author of Essential Principles for Fundraising Success, wrote a 1991 article in which he pointed out that contributions increased during World War II, the 1974 recession, and the 1982 recession. In a 2008 study, “Fundraising in a Cold Climate,” Dennis O’Connor and Deirdre Hatch cited work by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and the Association of Fundraising Professionals that found the same pattern: in most bad economies, nonprofits raised more money.

There seem to be many reasons this happens. In part, we seem to band together during hard times. People, and even countries, with very little discretionary money will send aid to victims of earthquakes, tsunamis, and terrorist attacks. We’ve all heard of poor communities coming together to support one another: it’s become a Hollywood cliché.

In addition, while many states and municipalities are eviscerating library budgets, the stock market, though volatile, has enjoyed a significant recovery in the last year or so. On March 6, 2009, the Dow Jones Industrial Average descended all the way to 6,627; on April 23, it reached 11,204. Along the way, many people made quite a bit of money. Certainly not everyone: plenty of people sold low, and plenty of others lacked the funds or insight to invest during the recovery. But the idea in fundraising isn’t to raise an equal amount of money from everyone: it’s to raise sufficient funding from people who are interested in supporting your work.

If people want to help you but don’t have money right now, make sure they still feel appreciated and informed and, if they’re interested, provide them with other meaningful ways to contribute. If people have money but aren’t interested, you’re not likely to change their minds. In general, it’s best to focus your fundraising efforts on people who have the ability and inclination to contribute.

We like winners

Many people with enough discretionary money to make sizable financial contributions have accumulated their savings by working hard, making decisions that turned out well, and avoiding risk. As Warren Buffett likes to say, “The first rule of investing is don’t lose money; the second rule is don’t forget Rule No. 1.”

This is one of the ideas that people who are unfamiliar with fundraising often fail to appreciate: your desperation makes donors less likely to contribute. In the US alone, there are thousands of great causes and nonprofits. It simply doesn’t make sense to donate money to a desperate organization when you have so many stable organizations to choose from that are also doing great work.

In addition, it’s awfully hard for a library to paint a bleak picture without coming off as disingenuous. If I didn’t believe libraries were important, I wouldn’t have gone to library school, but there’s no way the funding cuts we’re facing can compete with the World Bank’s estimate that “1.4 billion people in developing countries are living in extreme poverty, on less than $1.25 a day.”

How can we justify supporting libraries when hundreds of millions of people go hungry each day? When preventable diseases are decimating whole populations? I happen to think Andrew Carnegie was right: libraries are a great way to support economies while also furthering democracy. And I think Bill and Melinda Gates have analyzed the situation intelligently—an opinion shared by Warren Buffett, who donated the vast majority of his fortune to the Gates Foundation. For the most part, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spends its money on health and poverty, primarily in developing countries. But in the US it supports libraries and education, and it supports libraries in Europe and South America as well. This isn’t just a humanitarian decision, this is an economic decision.

We want you to ask us for money

One of the questions I’m asked most frequently by my neighbors in Collingswood: “Do you take donations?” They mostly mean books, but the principle applies to financial donations as well: unless you ask people to contribute, they don’t know that you need the money. It doesn’t have to be a hard sell. It can be as simple as, “Have you ever thought about making a contribution to the library?” or asking them if they’re aware that a friend of theirs has included the library in her will—assuming that you’ve asked the friend if she’s comfortable with your disclosing this information. In general, people are happy to agree to this request. If they care enough to contribute, they generally care enough to want other people to contribute as well, and they’re very aware that their example can encourage others to support the library; if you ask them, you’re likely to find out that it was someone else’s contribution that inspired their donation.

Also, and this often surprises those who are new to fundraising, sometimes people are insulted if you don’t ask them for money, especially if their friends are supporting the library. Even if they aren’t currently able to make a donation, they don’t want people to know it. What if you were walking through the exhibition hall at a library conference with two friends and Tim Spalding tried to interest both of your friends in LibraryThing for Libraries but completely ignored you? Regardless of how interested you were in the product, wouldn’t you wonder why he didn’t think it was even worth asking you about it?

Two quick anecdotes about asking people for money:

  1. I started my fundraising career as a phone canvasser. Back in the early 90’s, I was one of those people who would interrupt your dinner and ask you to renew your support. At the close of the conversation, after we’d agreed on how much you would give, donors would often ask if I was so insistent with everyone I called. “Of course,” I’d say. Their inevitable response: “Good.” If they were giving the most they could, they wanted me to make sure that everyone else did the same.
  2. Soon after I started my current job, I asked someone who has been connected to the library for years if there were any foundations or other potential donors who hadn’t yet supported the library, but who seemed like good prospects. Yes, he said, the secretary for a small area foundation has an office in town. The foundation had been around for many years, but no one from the library had ever solicited a gift. A few of us wrote letters of interest to the foundation, and, after initially turning us down—our inquiry coincided with the stock market’s 2009 low point—we were surprised a couple of months later by a $5,000 check. And so was a neighboring library, one that hadn’t even asked for a contribution. As it turned out, all we had to do was ask.

We really like to be thanked

The way I learned it, the fundraising relationship with donors cycles through three stages:

Cultivation → Solicitation → Stewardship → Cultivation → Solicitation → Stewardship, etc.

Cultivation is what you do before asking for money. Preparation is everything.

Solicitation is the ask itself. A colleague of mine would refer to proposals—one form of solicitation—as the icing on the cake, but cultivation was the cake itself. She also likened proposals to contracts: they simply made official what the two parties involved in the transaction had already agreed on.

Stewardship was the majority of what I did, full-time, for five years. Acknowledging gifts and maintaining correspondence with donors is important. It leads to cultivation, just as cultivation leads to solicitation, but it is distinct from either of them. Most donors contribute because they believe in the work you do, but many of them will not contribute again if they are not acknowledged appropriately. Once they have given, they feel connected to you in an emotional way. They feel hurt if you don’t appreciate the fact that they chose you over the thousands of other organizations they could have helped, and over the family members and friends they could have given gifts to instead. They want to feel like insiders not because they think they’ve bought their way in, but because they care so deeply about your work.

A good rule of thumb: if you don’t have the time and resources to steward a gift properly, don’t ask for it in the first place.

Our sense of privacy is different from your sense of our privacy

When I worked in stewardship at the University of Pennsylvania, there was another department called Research which consisted of about a dozen people whose sole task was to assess donors’ and prospects’ wealth so the people whose job it was to make individual solicitations knew how much to ask for: too much or too little and the potential donors could be insulted or, at the very least, end up making a gift that was much smaller than they were willing and able to give. No one is going to say, “You only want one million dollars to name that building after me? I was prepared to give you five million.” If you ask for one million, they’ll assume that’s all you need.

The Internet already existed at that point, but this was before Google, let alone Facebook: privacy was a lot easier to protect at the time. Even then, the researchers had about twenty bookshelves of material to consult, along with numerous databases. Our prospects knew they were being researched, but they didn’t mind then and people in similar situations don’t mind today: being marketed to is just part of what happens when a certain amount of money passes through your hands. In a smaller town, it doesn’t have to be all that much money. At a major university or hospital—organizations that do a lot of fundraising—it’s generally a bit more.

Not only professional fundraisers pay attention to these sorts of gifts, but other donors do as well, which is why one of the activities donors get involved in during the stewardship process is contributing information about their peers’ wealth. It’s one of the ways donors became insiders: Who just bought a new house or yacht? Who collects antique cars? Who is becoming an angel investor or venture capitalist? Who joined what board? Did you see the new donor listing in this year’s opera program? So-and-so moved up to the highest support level!

This isn’t to say that it’s acceptable to share any information without a donor’s permission. If anything, fundraisers are more aware of confidentiality than librarians. But if a donor wants her name connected to a gift or project, she usually wants people to see that connection everywhere.

We don’t think like you do

Fitzgerald’s preoccupation with money and those who have it was a far more complicated business than is often understood. Whether he ever actually said that “the rich are different from the rest of us” is a subject of endless dispute, but if Hemingway did say in rejoinder, “Yes, they have more money,” then he missed the point. Fitzgerald understood that the rich live in a bubble the rest of us cannot enter….
Jonathan Yardley

Librarians are frugal. I think part of it has to do with our salaries, which most of us don’t think qualifies us as rich. I think part of it also has to do with the fact that many of us can’t help but think about money in increments of how many books we could buy instead. Pay out of my own pocket to attend two ALA conferences a year? And spend over a hundred dollars in annual dues? Do you know how many books I could buy with that money?

Most of us can’t imagine what it would be like to buy a book and think nothing of its expense, let alone imagine buying as many as we want without having to go without something else we care about. It doesn’t cross our minds to get on a plane and fly to another city and pay for a hotel and fly back again without thinking about the money involved. It’s a fundamentally different relationship with money than I’ve ever experienced or ever expect to experience. But there are plenty of people who live this way, and they don’t make all that much more than I do. Once you have enough to meet your basic needs for housing and food and health care, once you can afford your clothing, and once you have enough in savings for retirement, everything else is play money. And there are plenty of people in that situation. They may not live in my town, but maybe they grew up near the library; if they’re well off now, there’s a pretty good chance they made use of the library when they were young and have positive feelings about it. Maybe they want to help other kids growing up like they did have similarly positive experiences.

What people with means don’t want is to have to justify their wealth, not any more than you want to have to justify yourself to someone living on less than $1.25 per day. But what plenty of them do want is something useful to do with their surplus money and, if they have it, their surplus time as well. During the cultivation process, when you’re communicating with donors, don’t try to justify their gifts in a way that would make sense to you. As much as you can, put yourself in their position. Figure out what motivates them. Perhaps, and this can work surprisingly well, by asking them. Think of it as a reference transaction: “If you were to support the library, what would be a best case scenario for you? What would you want to see happen?”

We don’t know what you know (and we don’t want to have to learn it)

Have you ever heard a teenager give a speech in public? They stare at the paper in their hands and read in a voice that’s somehow both choppy and sing-song, as if they learned to speak by listening to their GPS read them Dr. Seuss stories. The same thing happened in an acting class I took one summer. For no apparent reason, we all transformed ourselves into Joan Crawford. Acting!

When we write proposals or other correspondence with donors, we often seem to do the same thing, and probably for the same reason: fear. We want so badly to be judged fund-worthy that we write awkward sentences. And we want so badly to be succinct that we use abbreviations that are unfamiliar to our readers, over-explain simple concepts, and under-explain important ones, such as how the money, if granted, will be spent by your library. Sprinkle liberally with jargon and you’ve got yourself an unreadable mess.

A quote ascribed to Albert Einstein’s is a useful one to keep in mind: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Your job isn’t just to explain it simply, your job is to ensure your donors can explain it simply as well.

I’ve had colleagues who would go to great lengths to keep things as simple as possible. One proposal writer, a former journalist, went so far as to advocate using words of Anglo-Saxon rather than Latin origin because they tended to be shorter and more familiar. A more common practice among fundraisers: show everything to someone who is unfamiliar with the topic. If it doesn’t make sense to them, it probably won’t make sense to the donor.

Facts are boring

Clarity is useful, but it can be overdone. For instance, go to English Literature PowerPoints at World of Teaching. Pick a PowerPoint for a book you like, perhaps To Kill a Mockingbird. Imagine presenting this PowerPoint to people who haven’t yet read the book. Imagine how much coffee they would have to drink to stay awake during your presentation.

I think most really effective fundraisers and fundraising organizations have learned to tell stories rather than list facts. One person who’s helped organizations where I’ve worked make the transition into storytelling is Andy Goodman, who provides an overview of the process on his website. He calls it, “Storytelling as Best Practice.”

For some fundraisers, and some donors, there’s a quicker path to getting past the facts. Make everything personal. From Dale Carnegie’s summary of his influential book, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936):

Six ways to make people like you

  1. Become genuinely interested in other people.
  2. Smile.
  3. Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
  4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
  5. Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
  6. Make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely.


If you can remember all six and make use of them, you’ll raise more money and be a better librarian. But if six rules are too many, you can summarize Carnegie’s message in a single word, as fundraiser Jeff Brooks suggested in what may be my all-time favorite blog post on any subject, “The easy way to write a fundraising letter”:

Dear [name]:

You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. Yes, you. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You.


P.S. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You.

It’s about relationships

The standard way to segment donors is into three general categories:

  1. Corporations and Foundations
  2. Individuals
  3. Planned Giving

In every case, contributions come from people. When possible, you want to get to know the people who decide whether to support your library.

There are steps to take in each case. In researching and cultivating corporate donations, ideally you get to know the people involved with making contributions, such as the owner of the company, the head of the division you’ll be working with (if that’s how the corporation is set up), and also the community relations person or team that coordinates grants and volunteers. Corporations generally want a return on their investment, such as associating the company’s name with organizations that fit its charitable mission or team-building activities like volunteer activities for their service days.

Foundations generally have fewer employees than corporations, but may have just as many people involved in approving donations, so it’s really useful to get to know everyone who has a say in whether your solicitation is funded. Foundations are usually guided closely by their mission, and they tend to be especially regimented in vetting the organizations they support. The grant process can be highly involved, and occasionally the reporting and other stewardship activities can be so much work you wonder if the grant was even worth it. Foundations are this demanding for a reason: more than any other class of donors, they want to make sure they’re supporting a stable organization, one that will use their funds appropriately but will not grow to depend on them. Foundations generally like to supply seed money or support for special projects, and they don’t want an organization or a project they’re funding to collapse once they shift their support to other organizations and projects. Getting to know people who work for the foundation, or who sit on its board, is a useful way to make those assurances. So is coming up with projects that are likely to become self-sustaining.

Individual donors fall into subcategories: annual giving and major donors. People who are annual givers donate relatively small amounts more or less each year. It’s generally not a lot of work to keep them happy, just so long as you don’t break any unwritten rules of the contract: make them feel important and special by learning their names and interests, and by acknowledging their gifts effusively and appropriately. Once people start giving annually, usually they keep giving about the same amount each year or maybe a little more. Developing a stable base of annual support is within the reach of most libraries. Most organizations solicit annual donations via letters, emails, brochures, newsletters, websites, or phone banks, which means the solicitation itself is often somewhat impersonal, or at least less personalized.

Major gifts—and each organization decides on its own what qualifies as a major gift—are the ones you solicit in person. Some people are capable of making major gifts annually, but the typical major gift is unique, such as a large, one-time sponsorship of a program or a room. Often, a lot of people are involved in cultivating this gift—remember, donors like to be insiders—but the solicitation itself should generally be made by whoever is at the top of the organizational hierarchy, perhaps accompanied by a peer or fellow donor.

Planned giving is the umbrella term for bequests, annuities, and trusts—all ways that people who don’t think of themselves as wealthy can make substantial contributions to organizations whose work they want to support. The one most of us know best is bequests, the practice of providing for an organization in your will.

It seems like every few months we read about another person who lived frugally and gave no appearance of substantial savings, who surprises everyone by leaving millions to their local library. These are heartwarming stories, and also nice reminders not to make assumptions about who is capable of making major gifts and who is not. But they’re also lost opportunities. I want every library to say thank you to its donors while they’re still alive. If you’re able to foster a culture of planned giving at your library, perhaps by establishing a “society” or annual dinner for people who have provided for the library, you can acknowledge generosity in person and also encourage others to make similar provisions.

Other ways to get people involved in planned giving, such as encouraging them to establish charitable gift annuities, usually require libraries to partner with community foundations. For instance, donors who set up annuities are making a gift that pays them interest while they’re alive and leaves whatever principle isn’t spent during their lifetimes to an organization they wish to support.

Finding a community foundation or other partner to guarantee an annuity usually isn’t terribly difficult, and many donors like annuities as investments because the rates are reasonably competitive, especially when coupled with the tax advantages, and they get the satisfaction of knowing they’ve made a potentially large gift to something they care about. The main things holding back most organizations is a lack of knowledge about planned giving, a fear of acknowledging donors’ mortality, and a lack of patience with a fundraising method that, though clearly worthwhile in the long run, may not deliver immediate gratification.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing

Imagine you’re at the reference desk. A student approaches and says he needs ten authoritative sources for a paper he’s working on. You show him how to use the catalog and he finds two useful sources.

“Why bother?” he says. “I need ten sources.”

Undaunted, you show him how to use Academic Search Premier. He finds four good sources.

“That won’t work,” he says. “I need ten sources.”

So you take him to the bookshelves. You pull the more recent of the two books off the shelf. You show him how to read its bibliography and make interlibrary loan requests for the books and articles that aren’t immediately available.

“How long will that take?” he asks. You tell him it might take up to a week. He leaves, convinced that libraries and librarians are a waste of time.

I’ve had conversations with librarians about fundraising that felt sort of like this scenario. I would like to tell people that starting a fundraising program today will close their budget gap by December 2010 and provide their community with a new library by May 2012. It might work that way, but that would be atypical.

What’s more likely is your fundraising program will build slowly, and at first it may take a lot of time, and it may not be fun, and you might make a mistake or two. You will probably have someone decide not to fund something even though you’ve presented them with a compelling case: great cultivation and cogent solicitations tilt the odds in your favor, but in fundraising there are no guarantees. Though in the long term I think it’s worth it. And in the short term, I think fundraising is a lot more fun if you set reasonable expectations for yourself.

You are all individuals

We all probably have internal lists of the libraries we most admire. Some are in wealthy communities, where many people don’t really need the library but love and support it anyway. Some are in less affluent communities, where many people wouldn’t have access to information without the library, and grantors do their part to make sure superb library services are available. Some are in big cities. Others are in small towns. Some are independent libraries and some are part of a large system.

There are plenty of reasons fundraising might not work at your library, or why you may not want to be part of your library’s fundraising efforts. But there’s probably someone out there with a library a lot like yours, who could have the same reasons you do, but who instead is helping to raise funds and make the library more successful than it would be otherwise.

It may not seem worth it at first, but if you work at it steadily, if you refine your own story, you’ll develop your own set of donors and your own unique donor culture. We’re all different, but we’re not that different. If we celebrate those differences, if we give donors plenty of reasons to feel good about supporting us, they’ll respond.

Thanks to Ka-Msiyara Corbett, and to my Lead Pipe colleagues Derik Badman, Ellie Collier, and Emily Ford for their helpful comments on this article.

  1. My response:

    That sounds like a very interesting job. Here at In the Library with the Lead Pipe, we’ve all become librarians the traditional way: we went to library school and got a Masters in Library Science. That’s certainly not the only way to do it, nor is it a requirement—it just means that any advice we offer is based on a best guess, not on our own experience.

    Here are some resources that might be useful to you:

    • Library Journal’s recent article, “How to Become a Librarian” and http://www.becomealibrarian.org/ — both are traditional/get-a-library-degree focused, but both contain good resources for anyone interested in doing library work.
    • SLA’s Solo Librarians Division. SLA has a pretty good international membership base, and it has created a home for people in the situation you’ll be entering: solo librarianship.
    • Ask the question you just asked us on Ask MetaFilter. The MetaFilter community excels at finding good answers to questions like yours. Plus, MetaFilter is moderated by an unaffiliated librarian who just happens to be one of the smartest people in the field.


5 Responses

  1. Hilary Davis

    Brett – excellent article! Thanks for sharing your insights about donor relations. I’m passing this on to my colleagues to read as it has such broad appeal.

  2. Kris Alpi

    Great article – and fun to compare with my current read which is less about every librarian’s involvement and more about library leadership:

    “More than a thank you note : academic library fundraising for the dean or director” by Kimberly Thompson.

    1. Brian, thanks for the compliment and for mentioning Adam’s book. We worked together at Penn for several years, and he agreed to be one of the reviewers for a draft of this article. Unfortunately, I had email issues at exactly the wrong time and wasn’t able to get the piece to him in time for him to review it.