Fundraising Tips and Strategies for Future Library Leaders

As new and emerging library leaders, how do we engage successfully with high-wealth donors who may have different social values than our own? This thoughtful and timely question was just one of the many pressing questions posed by librarians during the 2016 Taiga Forum, held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Wednesday, November 9, 2016. Emerging library leaders from more than a dozen universities, liberal arts colleges, cultural institutions and other associations gathered for an open and honest conversation about how to cultivate the skills and knowledge necessary to fundraise successfully for 21st-century academic libraries.

Introductions and Librarians’ Motivations for Attending

At the beginning of the session, attendees of the Forum introduced themselves and described some of the ways that they are involved in fundraising:  Librarians noted that they are involved with capital campaigns and projects that include renovating existing buildings or building new libraries. They described projects that depend on the completion of successful fundraising campaigns and asked to hear tips for assisting in such campaigns. Other librarians described operating in environments without a “culture of fundraising,” so they hoped to be able to learn skills for bringing other librarians and staff members on board to assist in cultivating donors. Some librarians expressed their hopes of becoming more persuasive advocates for their libraries within their universities: for instance, how can they ensure that their libraries are specifically named in capital campaigns? Others described the challenge of being asked to complete donor-funded projects for which there isn’t sufficient funding; one example included a situation in which collections were received, but no processing or digitization funds were acquired to make the collections fully accessible. Another librarian responsible for IT operations expressed a hope that technology costs be included more often in conversations with donors. Others mentioned a need to offset losses of public funding, hope for obtaining unrestricted gift funding, and desire to hear inspirational stories of successful fundraising. Some librarians expressed a hope of learning how to tell stories of library impact more compellingly and, in particular, to make better pitches to donors. Others worried about how to balance donor expectations, which are sometimes specific and narrow in scope, with pressing library needs and priorities, such as operations and staffing. A few participants also observed that librarians are often introverted by nature and that this can make it difficult to have conversations with donors; asking for money can feel awkward and uncomfortable.

During the introductions, we also discovered that librarians are working at institutions with many different types of relationships with professional development officers. At one end of the spectrum, libraries are operating with their own development officer and multiple support staff. One librarian even shares an office with a development officer, so has frequent contact with her. Other libraries have a development officer who is only partially dedicated (half-time or less) to the organization. Some libraries have no development support at all.

Expert Speakers: Daniel Petry and Susan Modder

Taiga Forum invited two expert speakers, Daniel Petry (Development Director, Peck School of the Arts, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and Susan Modder (Development Director, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries) from the local area to join us, provide an introduction to the topic, and respond to questions. Jenn Riley, Associate Dean for Digital Initiatives at the McGill University Library and a member of the Taiga Forum Steering Committee, introduced Daniel and Susan. We learned that Daniel, a Wisconsin native with degrees in Music and Arts Administration, has a longstanding commitment to advancing the arts. He often works closely with his colleague, Susan, to develop and cultivate donors with interests in arts and libraries. Susan, who holds an MLIS, came to librarianship with a passion for preserving culture, following more than twenty years of experience working in “house museums” (see:  Susan described her love of development work in the following way: she sees herself as a connector who offers people (donors) the chance to become involved in something greater than themselves.  Susan has especially strived to help connect donors to the library’s work in documenting the cultural history of the city of Milwaukee, including the stories of marginalized populations. She noted the LGBT history collection of the UW-Milwaukee Libraries as an example.

In their opening remarks, Daniel and Susan offered advice that we’ve summarized in a question-and-answer format:

What do development officers seek to do?  Daniel and Susan discussed the emotional component of their work, that is, they strive to foster an emotional connection between the donor and the organization they represent. Susan noted that their goal is to identify those who have a philanthropic spirit and to create joyful donors, who enjoy giving and seeing the difference their gifts make.

How can librarians help development officers? They encouraged us to think in terms of aspirations and visions that might inspire donors and consider how potential gifts can contribute to those aspirations and visions for our libraries. Susan recommended that we think about what makes our libraries unique or special. Knowing what makes your library distinctive can help you articulate a compelling vision.

What is the role of the development officer?  Daniel described the role of the development officer as one who creates engagement activities to help donors experience the organization’s work.  Susan added that building a sense of reciprocity in the relationship, such as providing access to library professionals for assistance, can create a connection to the library for potential donors who, in turn, make a difference for the organization with a gift.  In practice, this means identifying potential donors, building trusting relationships with them, determining and confirming their philanthropic passions, matching those passions to organizational priorities and initiatives, managing their involvement in the organization’s activities and programs, acquiring the desired donation, and then acknowledging the gift in a meaningful way that encourages future gift giving.

What qualities do development officers look for in potential donors?  Susan used the mnemonic “magic” to describe qualities of donors she seeks to find:

M (“means” or capacity: does the person have the means or capacity to donate?),
A (“age”: has the person had sufficient time to accumulate the wealth necessary to donate?),
G (“giver”: is the person interested in giving?),
I (“involved”: is the person involved with the organization?), and
C (“contacts”: does the person have contacts that could be useful to the organization?)

What types of questions do donors ask themselves when engaging with organizations and that development officers try to keep in mind?

  • Do my values align with the organization’s values?
  • Is the cause important?
  • Do I respect the leadership of the organization?
  • Do I trust the development officer?
  • Are my contributions acknowledged and appreciated?
  • Am I receiving an adequate return on my investment?

Is there specific language that development officers use when engaging with donors? Daniel and Susan noted that it’s important when engaging with donors to use adjectives that reflect qualities that they, themselves, like to be viewed as possessing; for instance, adjectives like “kind, compassionate, friendly, generous and giving,” can be helpful. They also suggest using the second-person pronoun “you” in fundraising appeals, in order to create a sense of immediacy and connection.  In person, for example, a development officer might say: “Thank you for coming to visit the library today. The gift of your time and attention is very generous.” Daniel and Susan argue that success happens when the donor uses the term “we” in relation to the organization, thus, recognizing that she’s found a place for herself within the library and sees herself as playing a role in helping the library to achieve its mission.

How do development officers develop relationships with potential donors? To develop relationships with potential donors, it’s necessary to spend time with them and learn their stories. If you ask them about themselves, they will tell you what their passions are. Daniel stressed that people are motivated to contribute for their own reasons and these may not always be obvious. He also suggested leaving information about the organization (brochures, etc.) with them that may seed ideas. Being sincere and genuine in your engagement with the donor is critical, Daniel and Susan argued. Once donors feel comfortable sharing information about themselves, you can then invite them to become more involved in the organization.

What types of probing questions can be asked when it’s not clear what a donor’s reasons for giving might be? Relationship-building questions to pose to donors may include the following:

  • What are you passionate about?
  • Who’s been important to you in your life, and why?
  • What have been the important turning-points or major events in your life?

And the ‘passion’ question: What is it that you hope to accomplish with your money that will be meaningful for you?   These type of questions allow the donor to describe her personal story in such a way that you, the librarian, can learn about how that story might connect to philanthropic opportunities in your organization. The key is to focus on how the donor might be able to connect emotionally with the mission, program or cause of your organization and its strategic priorities. In order to do that, you have to understand what motivates and inspires the donor.

What are key skills a development officer possesses? A key skill possessed by a successful development officer is the ability to listen carefully and attentively; indeed, eliciting the details of the donor’s life story often requires asking follow-up questions. “Donor magic” happens when the development officer can discover – through listening – a match between the donor’s personal story and a philanthropic opportunity in the organization. The relationship needs to be reciprocal and mutually beneficial. The “magic” can only happen if a relationship of trust and respect has been firmly established. Creating a compelling case for the donor to make a gift is a key skill. Daniel and Susan added that this process is necessarily time-consuming, requiring patience and commitment.

How important is showing gratitude to donors? In order to build a fruitful relationship with a donor, Daniel and Susan explained that it’s critical to express gratitude to the donor for sharing their time, thoughts and financial support. It’s critically important to steward a donor by creating meaningful ways to acknowledge their contributions.

Open Questions from Participants

During the open discussion period, participants raised pressing questions relevant to their own contexts and shared stories and anecdotes about their experiences with donors. We’ve listed some of these questions below and provided brief responses that summarize the advice and suggestions provided by Daniel and Susan.

Q: As new and emerging library leaders, how do we engage successfully with high-wealth donors who may have different social values than our own? The librarian elaborated by describing a donor relationship that he’d found challenging. A high-wealth donor had invited him to visit Mar-a-Lago, the South Florida estate of Donald Trump. During the visit, the donor shared his unsolicited and negative opinion of Hillary Clinton. The librarian, whose personal opinion differed from that of the donor’s, assumed that to disagree with the donor on such a political topic could endanger the relationship and the benefits the donor offered to his organization. Daniel and Susan acknowledged the librarian’s challenge, while offering the following insights and advice that presented a possible path forward and clarified the nature and scope of the donor development process.  First, they explained, it’s important to remain neutral in response to controversial topics that arise during donor engagement and to redirect the conversation to focus on your goal. The primary objective of the donor development process, they argued, is to encourage the donor to articulate her passions. Only when a librarian understands what a donor truly cares about, and what the donor hopes to accomplish with her money, is it possible to determine if there is an appropriate alignment between those passions and aspirations and the strategic priorities of the organization you represent. Daniel and Susan were, in essence, asking us, as librarians, to seek common ground with high-wealth donors, to look for points of shared passion, and to avoid focusing on areas of potential conflict or discord.

Q: What if donor’s request or vision for a potential donation is too narrow or specific? Susan recommended that you share the strategic direction of the library with the donor, so that she better understands the larger vision and possibilities for the potential gift. Broadening the conversation will allow you to identify and articulate opportunities for a better fit. Daniel noted that the donor will appreciate that their investment will have a more meaningful and sustainable impact, if it’s properly aligned with the strategic goals of the organization. In your conversation with the donor, you can also talk about the need for the library to remain flexible and nimble, as it changes over time. Daniel also noted that with older donors, particularly donors over the age of eighty, it’s helpful to have another person, perhaps, a relative of the donor, in the room for conversations about potential gifts. This type of approach will ensure that the information you are receiving is accurate and able to be confirmed.

Q: When is it appropriate for a librarian to consult with the development officer about a potential gift? Daniel and Susan advised us that it’s never too early to let development officers know about prospective donors. The development officers can play an important listening role in the early stages of relationship-building with donors and be a source of advice and support. Development officers also have access to donor databases that they check to see if the donor has existing relationships with the organization and the status of those relationships.

Q: What can a librarian do who wants to become more involved in donor engagement? We learned that it’s possible to negotiate with your university’s central development office to obtain prospect lists or to ask for lists of donors that have dropped off from giving to their school or college and might be open to renewing their relationship with the library. You can also join the Academic Library Advancement and Development Network (ALADN). This is a wonderful opportunity to learn more about donor engagement and relations.

Q: What might convince a donor to give to the library instead of individual schools, colleges or departments? Susan likes to make the case that all students benefit from the use of libraries, so that a donor’s gift to the library will have a larger reach. She refers to the library as the “center” of the university, the “center” of learning, and this is often quite convincing to donors, she finds. She added that it’s helpful to learn about the percentage of your student population that remains in the surrounding area after graduation; if the percentage is substantial, you can make the case that a gift to the library is also a gift to the local community as graduates from the university will contribute positively to the region. Again, you are helping the donor make a larger impact than they might have initially anticipated.

Q: How can I involve fellow librarians and library staff in the development effort? Encourage librarians and library staff to let you know about patrons who come and use the library that might be interested in deeper relationships. Create opportunities for the development officer to engage with department heads. You can also form a library development team that meets on a monthly basis and helps track opportunities.

Q: What is the development officer’s desired relationship to the organization or library? Daniel and Susan both agreed that they like to be seen as liaisons between donors and their organizations. As liaisons, they can serve as connectors, identifying opportunities for mutual growth and benefit. Again, they mentioned the significance of listening to both parties in order to forge connections.

Q: How do we fundraise in an environment in which public education is being defunded? The librarian who posed the question noted that donors often assume erroneously that library operations and infrastructure are already sufficiently funded. Daniel and Susan nodded in agreement with this question. As employees of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, they understand the challenges of working at public institutions that are losing public funding. They recommend appealing to common or shared values. Reaching for the largest vision possible will allow for greater connections to be made. They also suggested that it’s sometimes helpful to work with other units at your institution to consider “joint asks” or “joint proposals” to donors.

Q: How do you deal with people who are disgruntled with the University or Library? Daniel and Susan noted that it’s not always possible to form successful relationships with individuals who are unhappy with the organization. But it’s possible to renew the relationship by talking about the donor’s vision for what could be possible; for instance, what might the donor’s legacy be?

This summary was written by Kelly Miller with assistance from Susan Modder and Daniel Petry.




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About “Gentle Disturbances”

The title of our new blog, “Gentle Disturbances”, is a tribute and a reference to the husband and wife artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art consists of vast, temporary outdoor installations, such as the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin, the 24-mile Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin counties in California, and The Gates in New York City's Central Park. Christo has asserted that their art creates “gentle disturbances," designed to challenge traditional perceptions of the spaces and landscapes they inhabit. By encouraging viewers to see familiar landscapes in new ways, their art disrupts assumptions about permanence, ownership, and categorization.

While we claim none of the artistic or political impact of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, we hope that this blog and its many contributors will challenge us all to look at the landscape of academic libraries and higher education in new ways. We aspire to “gentle disturbances” of the kind that will lead to productive conversations and creative approaches to our common challenges.