May 21, 2018
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The craziest, coolest, most heart-warming ways to fund Maine libraries


Ingrid Schaefer, 7, of Bangor sent out a rather unusual request for her birthday this month: The book lover wants to help the Bangor Public Library raise money for an interior renovation and, in the process, have her name included on a donor wall.

She sent out this note with her birthday party invitations: “For my birthday I would like money instead of presents. I want money because I want to support the Bangor Public Library. Giving money to the library will help build a new part of the library. I will get my name permnitly [sic] on the wall if I donate 1,000 dollars. The library is important to me because I LOVE books and the Bangor Public Library has tons, millions, trillions, really a LOT of books.”

How could you refuse a pitch like that? The library trustees certainly couldn’t. They’ve promised to match each gift that comes in, up to $500.

The better question: How can libraries grow that level of enthusiasm among more people, especially when it comes to fundraising?

As librarians know, it can be hard to keep the lights on and the shelves stocked. As they face a perennial problem of increasing costs and decreasing resources, librarians have found themselves looking for innovative ways to fund their operations and stay relevant to patrons. The Bangor library is considering adding a cafe, for instance; the Stockton Springs Community Library operates on funds collected from a continuous bottle drive.

We looked at what other organizations have done to get people excited about a cause:

The craziest: Who doesn’t want to rappel down the side of a 22-story building or, perhaps, a cliff? Boy Scouts of America offers such a “ thrill of a lifetime” in St. Paul, Minnesota. Supporters gather pledges and then head downtown to dangle themselves from the top of the Ecolab Corporate Center before rappelling back to earth. Maine libraries could offer a similar fundraising experience, led by professionals — perhaps off a rock face.

Most heart-warming: In 2013, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Library Journal picked the smallest library in West Virginia as the winner of their Best Small Library in America competition. Despite an annual budget of only $35,000, two staff members and 20 volunteers, the library, under a new director, had turned itself into a community force.

It started a Big Heart Campaign in which it helps a different charity every month; it takes in children after school to help them with their homework and feed them; and it helps high school students write resumes and college applications. (One student who got into college wrote her essay about a person who changed her life: Mary Beth Stenger, who runs the library.) It acts as a hub for homeschoolers, offering them art classes, tutoring, and geography and spelling bees.

It also provides a host of more traditional programs and events. After Stenger started work in 2010, patron visits increased to 7,945 from 3,094, and the number of programs grew exponentially. Often, what matters most is the passion of library leaders to pursue new ideas and make new community connections. This library in West Virginia won $20,000 for it — and gained national attention.

The coolest: No one knew “Livestrong” wristbands would jumpstart a cool trend. The Lance Armstrong Foundation and Nike hoped to sell 5 million of the $1 bracelets — to raise money for people with cancer — but they exceeded the goal in three months. They went on to sell more than 80 million wristbands, and many other foundations and initiatives followed with similar merchandise. (The Livestrong bands were discontinued after Lance Armstrong was stripped of his Tour de France titles.) Whether it’s wristbands or another product, if libraries “banded” together and got creative with their messaging, could they start a trend?

Of course, there are many ideas out there for raising money. And pursuing one is not the same thing as being successful at one. They often require hard work and repeat tries. But there’s something to be said for generating buzz and excitement.

Ingrid Schaefer — who has her library funding campaign and also donated $20 of her “giving money” last year after money and electronics were stolen from the Bangor library — certainly knows how to put her passion to good use. If only libraries could replicate that energy and spirit 1,000-fold.


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