Basic Fundraising Strategies for Libraries

Ronald L. Barrows, The Barrows Group

During my nearly 27 years in nonprofit development, there has been one constant. In order for an agency (in this case a library) to raise financial support, “someone, has to ask someone else, for something…particularly money”. Occasionally we will ask for appreciated securities or some other marketable asset that can be sold for money, but for the most we are asking for cash to pay the bills, start a new program or build a new library. The techniques may vary, but the bottom line is the same. In order to get the funding you need, someone must ask.

In this article I will address the basics of fundraising and share with you some principles that may improve your existing fundraising. Keep them in mind when starting a new activity or reviewing what you are currently doing to supplement your library’s income.


Fundraising is more competitive today than ever before. Nonprofits, schools, hospitals and municipalities are all competing for the same charitable dollars. And like all the competition, your library needs more support in order to accomplish your goals and the vision your library leadership has for the future.

Your library needs the support so you must make your library more competitive. To do this you must begin to think “outside the box”. Some of the tried and true fundraising strategies of the past no longer work as well or may not even work at all anymore. The process of determining which strategies will work the best for you require planning and often a little faith.

If you don’t ask, someone else will…and you won’t get the funding.


Since no one knows what the future holds we must be prepared to take advantage of opportunities and deal with the occasional negative. This includes utilizing the media as you deal with the public. And when I refer to media I mean social media as well as the traditional media like newspaper, radio and television. Once libraries began seeking out and accepting public funds, their ability to “fly below the radar” evaporated. You now must deal with the public, so manage
the process, don’t let it manage you.

Fundraising 101 – The Exchange Relationship 

In my workshops I elaborate on this concept, but here I will summarize. Imagine three boxes connected by a triangle. One box is your library, one box is your patrons and the people you serve and the third is a funding source (donor, foundation, the public). In this three way relationship money flows from the funding source to you so you can provide services, programs, and collections for the people you serve. The funding source needs something out of the transaction: examples would be a tax deduction, foundations must make mandatory grants, and some people just give because it makes them feel good. 

When planning your fundraising, ask yourself these three questions:

1. What’s in it for you?
2. What’s in it for the people you serve?
3. What’s in it for the funding source?

Be sure you make it a “win-win-win” situation.

 Step 1. Determining the Need – “Ask for what you really need.”
 Step 2. Identify Your Constituencies – “Who do you ask?”
 Step 3. Making the case isn’t enough – “Why you have to ask.”
 Step 4. Who - “Who should be asking?” 
 Step 5. Ask – “How do you ask?”
 Step 6. Recognize Contributions – “Thank everyone.”

Step 1. DETERMINING THE NEED – “Ask for what you need and all that you need.”

There are many ways to determine what you need. Just make sure you include everything. This is simple if you’re just acquiring a computer, but starting a new program or building a new building requires more planning. The last thing you want is to meet your goal, but then not have enough cash to complete the project or building.
 A. Facility or Program Assessment
 B. Strategic Planning
 C. Community Needs Assessment
 D. Funding Feasibility Study
 E.   Prioritization

Make sure you don’t fall prey to Competing Priorities – funding sources are not as likely to fund a Want versus Need.

Establish your priorities. Make sure your needs are Urgent AND Important.

Step 2. IDENTIFY YOUR CONSTITUENCIES – “Who do you ask?”

Who you ask is a critical question to answer. There are many potential funding sources, though many of them will only fund certain needs.  You also don’t want to waste your time making inappropriate requests. For example, some foundations ONLY give to capital projects while others DO NOT give to capital projects. Identify potential prospects and match requests to them for appropriate needs.
A. Who is likely to support your Library financially?
• Patrons - Individuals give 75.6% of all charitable contributions
• Friends
• Residents
• Service Clubs
• Local corporations - All corporations give approximately 4.8% of all charitable contributions
• Local Municipalities
• New York State 
• Foundations  - Foundations give approximately 11.6% of all contributions
• Former Residents

B. Requirements for a Legitimate Prospect
• Ability to give
• Propensity to give
• Approachable

If a prospect doesn’t meet all the pre-requisites for a true prospect, there is a good chance you will get nothing from them. Spend your time on true prospects.

Remember the Exchange Relationship

Step 3. MAKING THE “CASE” ISN’T ENOUGH – Making the “Case” leads to the Ask!

1. An effective “Case For Support” is critical to any fundraising. You need to be able to clearly and succinctly explain to a prospect why they should support your library, program or project. However, you can have the best Case For Support, the most elegant brochure, a multitude of third party endorsements…but if no one ASKS, you won’t raise any money.

 A. Explain why your patrons/clients can’t pay for the services they need.
 B. Tell THEIR story.
 C. Utilize publicity and social media whenever possible versus advertising.
 D. Be an Advocate.
 E. Then ASK!!!

Most fundraising efforts fail because not enough people are asked!

Step 4. WHO – “Who Should Be Asking?”

Planning who is the BEST person to ask, or solicit the gift, is an important step in the planning process. For some prospects it is simple. A direct relationship with a volunteer is best. The strongest relationship should be determined. Identify volunteers who are comfortable with asking and make this their priority. Salesmen and people working in customer service will often be more comfortable with this process.
 A.  Trustees
 B.  Volunteers
 C. Staff 

Remember that some people are uncomfortable asking family members or best friends.

Remember that a volunteer need not be a board member or staff member in order to ask/solicit on behalf of your library.

Step 5. ASK – “How do you ask?”

There are many ways of asking prospects for support, the most effective of which is person - person, face - to - face. The second most effective method of soliciting gifts is the phone, or a combination of phone follow-up to a mailing. The least effective method of solicitation is Direct Mail.  Not only is it becoming less effective, it is becoming more and more expensive. So I repeat, person to person contacts are the best asks!

 A. Techniques for “Asking”
Direct Mail
 - Membership Drive
 - Annual Appeal Mailing
 - Raffle
 - Friends Membership Drive 
- Direct contact
 - Phonathon to support a mailing
 - Phone follow-up to raffle mailing
 - Phone follow-up to sell tickets
Person to Person
 - Ticket sales
 - Major gift solicitations
 - Capital Campaigns
 B. Special Events
- Speakers
- Dinners
- Luncheons
 C. Foundation Grant Application
 D. Corporate Grant Application
 E. Social Media/Internet
  - Library website
  - Facebook

Don’t forget the Exchange Relationship.

Determine the BEST way to ask, but if you don’t have the volunteers for a person to person solicitation of all your prospects, choose the next best method and ASK!

Step 6. RECOGNIZE CONTRIBUTIONS – “Thank everyone.”

There are many reasons for thanking people, not the least of which is that it is the right thing to do. You are required to provide donors with receipts…why not add a thank you? It is a simple process to set up and it goes a long way toward cementing the relationship between your library and your donor. This will make it much easier for the next ask. If you’ve done a good job in thanking donors your fundraising will continue to grow.

A. Two Types of Thank You’s – under $250/ over $250
(Gifts of $250 or more require specific IRS language in the receipt.  Consult with your attorney or accountant.)
B. Giving Clubs/Recognition Societies
(People love to be recognized and some love to have their name on a wall.)

Be creative in your Thank You’s. In addition to the letter/receipt, add a hand written note.

Add some drawing from your Children’s program in with your Thank You’s.

Every day charities are asking for gifts. Every day donors and prospects are making donations, gifts and grants. If you don’t ask, someone else will…and you won’t get the funding.

Ron Barrows is the owner of  and Lead Consultant for The Barrows Group.

Headquartered in Cortland, NY, The Group is a consulting firm specializing in Development, Volunteer Training, Capital Campaigns, Feasibility Studies, Referendums and Fundraising Strategies. With nearly 27 years of development experience, Mr. Barrows has conducted workshops regionally and nationally for NYLA, library systems and other non-profit organizations. He has consulted directly with New York libraries on various aspects of fundraising and campaign management. He has worked almost exclusively with libraries for the last 14 years and has been a business member of NYLA for 8 years.