New York Library Association. - The eBulletin

What Does Success Look Like for a Friends Organization?

by Lisa C. Wemett, FLS President

Six months ago when a Rochester-area Friends group invited me to talk at their annual meeting, I asked the Friends President to quiz her board members about what they would like to hear me talk about, to give me a little direction for my remarks.

The questions and topics posed to me for a 15-minute talk seemed like an impossible task.  Here are a few samples:

  1. Why were Friends groups started?  Why are we needed?  What do Friends groups do for individual libraries throughout the state?
  2. How do other Friends groups get new members and keep old members?  How do other Friends groups raise money besides through memberships and book sales?  
  3. What about the digital divide and future trends in libraries?
  4. How do other groups communicate with their library’s desk staff about Friends activities?
  5. What is the difference between the missions of the various library entities: the Friends, the Board of Trustees, and the library’s Foundation?
  6. What are other groups doing to encourage younger people to join in?
  7. Does she have ideas about improving relationships between Friends and staff?
  8. Relative to the size of the towns she knows about: how large are the other Friends groups?  What do they do?  Do the members receive any perks?  What is the most successful group that she knows about?  

The president sheepishly forwarded the last e-mail response to me captioned “Are you sorry you asked?”  She followed up with “please do what you can; I realize the time constraint!!”

I was beginning to hear strains of “To Dream the Impossible Dream” in my head!

But the question, “What is the most successful group that she knows about?” continued to really resonate with me: what did the person mean by “successful”?  What, in fact, does a successful Friends group look like?

Measuring Success

We are used to thinking in a quantitative way when evaluating Friends activities:

  1. How many members do we have?
  2. How much money did we make at the last book sale?
  3. How many children came to the last program we helped to underwrite?
  4. How many books did we “recycle” back to new readers in our sale?

Do we ever look at:

  1. the renewal rate of our members?  How many join for one year and do not renew their membership?
  2. the “return on investment” when we send a second reminder to renew?
  3. the number of donors contributing more than the basic membership dues level?
  4. where do we reach our members most effectively?  Do memberships come from fliers at the circulation desk, online forms, people who join the Friends at the “members only” night before the book sale is open to the public, or through the annual renewal appeal letters?

I know that it is not really accurate to match up the total number of Friends in a group when one library has a small “chartered to serve” area and the other is in a large suburb.  Looking at the participation rate in the community, that is, the number of members as a percentage of the population who could choose to join the Friends of the Library, seems a more accurate comparison.

When I tackled that math problem, I found some interesting data.  Several strong, active Friends groups in Rochester’s suburban towns count 1.4% of the population of their service area as card-carrying members of the Friends. Other affluent suburbs struggle to reach 1% of their population as Friends members.

One town had 700 members on its roster back in 2006, a 1.6% participation rate, but nine years later that rate has dropped in half. The Friends now count less than 1% of their residents as members. Why the precipitous plunge in membership?  It may never be fully understood, but there might not have been active follow-up of non-renewing members, so the group didn’t retain the members it had. The Friends might have stopped outreach efforts to the community, like participating in local festivals. They might have abandoned the practice of in-person membership drives in the library, where the “personal ask” from a volunteer often netted multiple new members over the course of a week.

Whatever the reason for the decline, the goal would be to reverse the trend by implementing some of these simple solutions: sending two reminder notices to folks whose membership has lapsed, participating in community events with a Friends booth, hold regular membership drives separate from any book sale efforts. Probably the easiest fix: always have membership forms readily available at the library’s service desks and on the Friends website.

Not to give the impression that it’s all about the numbers, but more members give a group additional operating revenue (dues), a broad volunteer base to draw upon for large-scale projects, and more advocates to carry the library banner to representatives locally, statewide, and nationally.

One might argue a successful group would have a steady hand at the helm with support from a capable president and assistance and encouragement from the library director and staff.  A successful group would have an engaged officers corps and careful delegation of tasks and involvement of their non-elected members, that is, the rank-and-file volunteers. Are Friends deemed successful when there are avenues of involvement that excite potential volunteers?  What can the person do beyond setting up for the book sale? Is the group as a whole welcoming and nurturing of new helpers?

At our last regional meeting, I put forth this question by passing around a graffiti sheet:  What makes a Friends group “successful?”  I suggested writing just a quick note in response.  Here are some of the replies I received:

  1. Using the talents of the members to contribute toward activities
  2. People are valued for their individual contributions
  3. Continued advocacy and fund-raising
  4. Working for the benefit of all age groups
  5. Taking pride in contributing significantly to the library
  6. A cohesive “team” that supports everyone

It was interesting to see similar threads pointing to the heart of the group: talented members, whose individual contributions are welcomed and recognized, working together for a common cause. No one mentioned having “a large number of members.”  Success sounded a lot more like teamwork with a common goal to serve the community. I couldn’t agree more!

Obviously, I don’t profess to be able to answer all those questions the Friends board sent my way or even touch on them all at the annual meeting.  (In fact, “why were Friends groups started?” is intriguing and needs some research beyond Googling.  Don’t be surprised if I try to address that another day.)  But the questions provide much food for thought.

I did a little more math and was gratified to learn FLS members are now 3% of NYLA’s total membership. Not a bad “participation rate” for our first year in existence!  You may want to bring up some of these questions for discussion at your next Friends meeting. What looks like success to your group? Keep the dialogue going and let FLS know the answer so we can share it statewide. Excelsior!