AL Live Webinar – Working with Friends Groups

This blog posting describes the ALA webinar “Working with Friends Groups: The Good, the Great, and the Unfriendly”

This webinar was presented by Sally Gardner Reed, Executive Director of United for Libraries. Friends of the Library have been important to libraries since the beginning of the Carnegie Library movement, but “Friends of the Library” groups have been on the upswing lately.

Sally’s presentation began with a short history of Friends Groups. In the Carnegie Era grants were provided for library facilities only. That means that funds were available only for the library building and fundraising was needed for all other elements of library service. Women’s groups were key players in this library fundraising effort. Towns were reluctant to fundraising for libraries (adding a new line item to city budgets), and some state laws needed to be changed in order for municipalities to be able to fund library services. Women’s Groups actually advocated state governments in order to change city funding laws. In the Mid-20th century Friends of the Public Library programs started forming.

Millennials are actually the largest cohort of library volunteers today followed by Gen Xers. Those aged 16-19 represent 26% of volunteers, 35-44 year olds represent 28.9% of volunteers, and 45-54 year olds represent 28% of volunteers in library groups. There is a correlation between having kids and volunteering in the community. There is a strong volunteer spirit and we aren’t seeing it in the library because our friends programs aren’t capturing what today’s volunteers are looking for.

New volunteers are looking for discrete tasks. They want to see results and to know that what they did made a difference. They often want to use their skills. The volunteer core is well educated and has a variety of skills that can be put to use in volunteer roles. They do not want to attend meetings and they don’t want regular shift commitments.

The challenge for library friends groups is that that it is still led by the “old guard”. For this group volunteering was a social opportunity and it was based on committee work with regular meeting structures. These groups tend to be reluctant to change and have been headed by the same people for many years.

There have been some ways in which friends groups have “gone rogue” and are no longer supporting the library’s needs. These signs include:

  • Friends are secretive and unwilling to share their organizational and financial information with the library
  • Friends don’t invite the library’s administration to their meetings
  • Friends believe that because they raise the money, they should decide how it is spent
  • Friends are withholding money for which the library has a legitimate need
  • Friends are opposing library policy and/or direction
  • Friends are giving their money to organizations or initiatives outside the library
  • Friends have become “clubish” and follow their own agenda vs. that of their mission
  • Friends’ officers don’t turn over, and they begin to think of the money raised as their own

How can libraries counter both these “going rogue” activities and overcome the challenges to attracting and retaining Friends group members:

  • Redefine Operations: Shift your structure away from committees and toward tasks. Be more project oriented. Reach out to more people and assign them discrete tasks. For example, contact someone to take tickets at an event during a specific time. Ask someone to design signage for an event.
  • Build A Strong Network: Make sure that you keep a good database of people for discrete tasks. Collect contact information from everyone who is willing to volunteer or who does volunteer. You can use this database to support your library’s advocacy activities in the future as well.
  • Clarify the role of the Friends group: There are misunderstandings about what the role of the Friends group should be. They need to understand that the money that they are raising is held in trust for the library. It is not the Friends group’s money. Funding should not be given to other organizations, because this is a breach of trust to donors who give with the intention of supporting the library.
  • When and How to Spend: Friends groups sometimes believe that the money that they have raised should be saved. They believe that they need to have a funding cushion, but this doesn’t work for “on the ground” Friends groups. Donors expect their money to be spent on the library right away. If the library is sitting on money, then people won’t donate. Make sure that the Friends group is aware of the library’s financial needs. Provide the Friends group with a prioritized “wish list” for the library.
  • Address Personal Conflicts: Use Parliamentary Procedures to facilitate meetings. This helps to democratize proceedings and take personal biases out of decision making processes.
  • Communicate: Make sure that two-way communication is encouraged. Library administrators should attend Friends meetings and invite a Friends’ liaison to library board meetings. Friends work hard for the funds while library administrators know best about library priorities. Friends should be aware of the library’s challenges and opportunities every year.
  • Understand Friends Group Governance: Friends groups are separate organizations. Library administrators and liaisons are not their bosses. They have a mission and bylaws and it is important that library personnel are aware of these governing documents. Library staff members should join the Friends group, but not in leadership roles (check book members only) in order to avoid conflicts of interest.
  • Show Appreciation: Make sure that you give the Friends and their gifts lots of publicity and grateful acknowledgement. Let the public know how important Friends are to the library. Create press releases to publicize Friends’ contributions. Be present at Friends’ events.
  • Develop Mutual Working Documents: Develop a Memorandum of Understanding to clarify key items such as the library’s commitment to supporting Friends, guidelines for giving, and the role of the Friends board, trustees, and library administration. This is important even during times when things are working well.
  • Protect the Library’s Reputation: If you have a Friends’ group that is damaging the library’s reputation, for example, by giving funding to outside organizations, you may need to stop the group from fundraising in the library’s name. If you have a Friends’ group that isn’t working it will prevent the formation of one that does work. Distancing oneself from or dissolving a Friends’ group should be the last option if all other measures don’t work.


Featured image by Eric and Mary Ellen


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