Thinking Like a Non-Profit

by  Terry Tyson, Executive Vice President, Communication Services

We all know that library budgets are shrinking these days.  Libraries need to work harder and smarter to plug the holes in programming, collections and staffing that budget cuts create. 
Some libraries are fortunate to have active friends groups who energetically raise funds for library programs and services through book sales and other fund raising events.  But, that doesn’t mean that libraries can’t start doing it for themselves, as well.  Here are some tried and true fundraising activities that can really work for libraries. 

The Annual Appeal
The annual appeal is a renewable, reliable source of revenue for your library.  Yet, many libraries shy away from doing them.  We’re not sure why.  If done correctly, an annual appeal can produce impressive results and create a lasting donor base.   Direct mail is still one of the best ways to tell your story to your patrons and convince them that supporting your library is a worthwhile investment.     

Here are some simple steps you can take to m aximize your success in establishing an annual appeal for your library.   First, create a compelling letter that includes several brief stories about how your library makes a difference in your community.    Use actual stories if you’ve got them.  If not, create a story based on positive feedback you’ve received from your library patrons.  Make sure you ask for support at least three times in your letter. 

Personalize the letter with an individual address and salutation and create a teaser for the outside of the envelope.  These tips can improve the chances that the recipient will actually open and read it.  And, if you can find volunteers who will hand address your envelopes, so much the better!

"Hone your message carefully. The more compelling you make it, the better your response rate will be."


Always include a response envelope and a response device. It’s great to have the response device personalized as well to cut down on the amount of work the potential donor has to do. If you can’t do that, include a long flap self-addressed remittance envelope—which doubles as a response envelope and response device. The recipient can easily use it to provide the necessary information, donate by check or credit card, and mail back.  Don’t bother to include return postage.   It really doesn’t improve the return rate enough to justify the expense. 

Hone your message carefully.   The more compelling you make it, the better your response rate will be. Commit to making the annual appeal an integral part of your overall fund raising plan.  It’s unlikely that you will realize a good response the first year, but stick with it.  It takes several years to build a successful direct mail campaign that makes a significant difference to your bottom line.  In the meantime, you are keeping in touch with your patrons and reinforcing for them what a valuable resource they have in their library.  

Community Partnerships
Beyond the annual appeal, there are other effective ways in which libraries are raising additional funds these days.  One of them is through community partnerships.  For example, the Buffalo News in Buffalo, New York is partnering with the Buffalo &Erie County Public Library System in a program called “Bucks for Books.”  The newspaper solicits its readers for donations to purchase books for children and adults for the 37 libraries in the county.  The newspaper matches gifts of $50 or more, and all donations are acknowledged in print and online.  This is just one example of how libraries can partner with local businesses to raise funds for the library and build lasting relationships with local business and the community.  

Planned Giving
Planned Giving programs are an excellent way for libraries to raise significant funding , especially from older donors on fixed incomes who are unable to contribute to the library in a substantial way during their lifetimes.    Contact attorneys in your area who specialize in estate planning and encourage them to recommend your library to their clients looking for worthwhile organizations to support through a will or bequest.  

Donor Recognition Opportunities
Consider creating consumer-friendly areas within your library that can be underwritten with     private donations and given appropriate donor recognition.

Special Events and Merchandizing
From benefit concerts by local talent, community-wide garage sales, community cookbooks, silent auctions, and spaghetti dinners, to sales of fair-trade coffee and tote bags, there are creative and fun ways in which small sums can be raised for various library projects.  Most of these require countless volunteer hours and are best left to friends groups, rather than ever-diminishing, stretched-thin library staff. 

No matter what type of fund raising your library undertakes,  it is crucial to thank all donors publicly, privately, and often.  The mechanisms you establish to acknowledge your donors today will go a long 
way toward ensuring their continued loyalty and support in the future.

You probably know about Communication Services because of our work to pass library votes across the state. Bet you didn’t know, we also specialize in direct mail fundraising and other aspects of development.  We can be reached at 518-438-2826 or   Samples of our work can be found