Thursday, June 25, 2009

Getting our act(ors) together

Like most public libraries, we depend upon -- and need -- a broad range of community support. And like many, we are lucky to have organized supporters who work to improve and assist the library. At the Appleton Public Library, we are fortunate enough to have both a friends group (Friends of Appleton Library, or FOAL) and a Foundation (Appleton Library Foundation, Inc.). Now the two are on the verge of merging into a single, and stronger, organization.

The Friends have been around since the mid-1970s, were formed to support the library, as well as in support of the need to improve library service and possibly get a new library building. They were heavily involved in political support for the 1978 referendum which resulted in our current building. They created the "walking books" program of delivery to the homebound. They started an endowment fund which supports programs. Currently they have about 250 members, run two book sales each year as their main fundraiser and coordinate the annual holiday "Give a Child a Book" campaign. The provide the library with volunteer and financial support, particularly with regard to programming. They have a grass roots focus and an emphasis on fellowship.

The Foundation was started in 1985 by supporters who wanted to focus on providing broad financial support for any library services which would give our library "the edge of excellence", including materials, technology and marketing in addition to programs. They had a successful five year capital campaign to jump start their endowment fund and make annual grants from a budget approved by the Library Board, according to their Gifts Policy. They do an annual end of year donation request letter and hold an annual fundraising dinner. The Foundation also serves as the fiscal agent for the Friends.

With two wonderful, successful groups, why would we want to change? For one reason: to focus community and staff efforts and library goals and plans. With two groups, two boards, two structures, two sets of meetings, there are areas of overlap and there are gaps. There is a lack of clear public identity as to who is the library support group -- and there's occasional public confusion. There is additional overhead for staff in care and feeding of two organizations.

Public funding is increasingly tight at the same time that library use is growing dramatically. To maintain and grow our services, we need ever more volunteers, ever more private dollars and ever more people willing and able to speak up about the value of the library to decision makers. We need an active community willing to focus on and engage library service needs.

Inspired by a program exploring similar mergers at last year's Public Library Association conference, we started looking at pros and cons of changing. Our Friends and Foundation have been talking for most of the last year and are now looking at a merger agreement. We did a study, conducted by Library Strategies, to identify issues and opportunities. After reflection and discussion, we had a facilitated planning session in which members of both boards rolled up their sleeves and set priorities. The help of an attorney to see to the legal issues has been crucial.

When approved, the new body will be called the Friends of Appleton Library, but will be incorporated like the Foundation. It will be organized like the current Friends, but with some of the Foundation's business structure. And we'll ask everyone serving on both boards to join as members of the initial board of the merged entity. And then we'll need to develop new policies and a new budget.

This has been and will be a lot of work in the short run, but we have little doubt of the long term payoff. The single support group would be able to have a staff, start a capital campaign to help with a new library building, grow their membership and be an increasingly strong voice to recruit volunteers, promote library services and advocate for the library.

We're excited to see what happens next!

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