Online Fundraising Resources Center


Pitching the Powers-That-Be:
How Do Librarians "Sell" Library Projects to Their Campus Fundraisers?

A talk by Adam Corson-Finnerty, Director of Development and External Affairs, University of Pennsylvania Library

Fall Program: October 13, 2001
"Association of College and Research Libraries, Delaware Valley Chapter@50 : Fifty Years of Leadership and Service to Academic Libraries"
at the Adams Mark Hotel, Philadelphia
Moderator: Kathy Mulroy, Gwynedd-Mercy College

What are good arguments for including the Library in every Annual Giving Campaign? How can you stop being "taken for granted" and start being seen as a "hot" area for donor investment? Adam Corson-Finnerty, who has over 20 years experience in fundraising and management for non-profit organizations, will provide answers to these and other provocative questions.




Twenty years ago almost no academic Library undertook consistent fundraising activity. Even eight years ago, when I began to raise funds for the Penn Library, I felt quite isolated in my sub-sub-specialty. This has changed dramatically. A 400-institution professional association now exists—called ALADN. We have an active listserv and an annual international conference.

Library fundraising currently falls within three patterns:

  1. A full-time Library Development Director and modest staff.
  2. The Library is assigned to a Central Development officer who usually has several other parts of the academy under her wing.
  3. Do it yourself, which has traditionally been lead by the rare book librarian, but nowadays could involve another designee, including an assistant director whose main duty is fundraising.

In addition, frontline library staff and senior librarians may also be pressed into service—and that can be true whether you follow pattern A, B, or C.

My talk will focus on the Library side of this story. That is, what can and should library staff do to advance the fundraising agenda for their library?


But first, let me introduce a few important characters in my drama. The generic institution of higher education will be called Sywash University. The President is President Smith and he is a male. The Library Director is a female. These are all the opposite of my situation at the University of Pennsylvania. Just so you don’t think I’m talking about anyone you know.


The main problem that academic libraries face in fundraising is that they are seen as a campus utility. Like heat, light, and water, library services are seen as an essential, but boring, component of the academic enterprise. The Development Department doesn’t run around trying the raise funds specifically to pay the University’s electric bill—so why should it do that for the library?


Even if the Development Department has been asked to raise funds for the library, it is generally safe to assume that the library’s needs are not on anyone’s top-ten list. Scholarship, a new laboratory building, a new dorm, a new academic program, research, rewarding professorial stars—those are often on the list. But not the library. Nor is the quality of the library considered to be a factor in whether the college or university is in the "top ten" or top-whatever in ranking. Some people have argued that libraries should convince US News & World Report to include library data as part of their evaluative metric. I say, "dream on."


As a rule, and whether we like it or not, the Library is not going to be visited by a fairy godmother, is not going to arrive at the ball in the finest carriage and most fetching dress, and is not going to be asked for a dance by the prince. If we want to be permitted to raise funds, we are going to have to fight for it. If we want to be fundraised-for by Central Development, we are going to have to fight for it. If we want to be a campus priority, we are going to have to fight for it. Stop singing "some day my prince will come," and start watching Xena, Princess Warrior.


In fact, start studying Che Guevara, because library directors and library staff will have to engage in what I sometimes call "guerilla fundraising." Or to use a more folksy phrase, we need to advance our cause "by hook or by crook." We have to be clever, persistent, fluid, determined—and we don’t want to put ourselves in a position to be stopped. The best way to be told "no" is to ask permission. We don’t want to ask permission unless we absolutely have to. Just do it.


When we undertake our fundraising "campaign" we need to focus half of our time and energy on one set of constituents, and half on another. 50-50.

The first half consists of the alumni, the faculty, and the parents. The other half consists of—the President.

Yes, one person. Why? Because the President is the chief priority-setter and the chief fundraiser for the institution. It always amazes me that people focus on trying to influence the Vice President for Development, or even the chair of the Board of Trustees. The key person you want to influence is the President. The President tells the VP what to raise funds for; the President is hired by the Trustees to raise money and set priorities; and most importantly, the President is the chief gift-closer for the institution. That is to say, that when Joe Gotbucks is ready to be asked, the President is the one who does the asking.

If the President is already in your corner, and sees the Library as a priority, and has large library "asks" in his pocket when he goes to see big prospects, then you don’t need to be in this workshop! Your fundraising can consist of praying for the President’s continued good health.

But such circumstances are rarely the case.

Therefore, your fundraising strategy has to consist of A. Lobbying the President, and B. Everything else.

Now, I realize that for some of you, the situation may be 50-50-50. The latter 50 being the state legislature. I am always amazed when I talk with my state college and state university colleagues. It’s a different world from the private sphere. A lot of time and effort is expended in trying to influence the legislature. Sometimes it pays off with spectacular results—$10, $20, even $60 million for a large new building. This is fundraising!

And it is something that I know nothing about. So I apologize in advance for not being able to address this additional "50" that figures in some of your work lives.


The best way to lobby the President is to make him and his institution look good. If the library has something to brag about, if it has something to show off, if it has cause for a press release—then tell the world, and tell the world in a way that makes Sywash and the President shine. At the simplest, it’s the difference between these opening sentences in a press release:

**The Library at Sywash University announced today that it has opened a new computer lab. The new laboratory has 35 high-end workstations and will be available to students when the Library is open.**

**President Smith announced today that the Sywash Library has opened a new state-of-the art computer laboratory. "This new lab is an example of Sywash’s leadership in bringing leading technology to our students," the President said.**

Get it?

And I forgot to mention that the press release is accompanied by a picture of the President cutting the ribbon at the opening of the lab. And that at the opening, President Smith made remarks that were highly complimentary of the Library. And that these remarks were based upon suggestions from the library to the President's speechwriter. And that the President was addressing a good-sized audience of alumni leaders and University donors and student leaders who had been assembled by the Library. And that when the Library Director introduced the President she made a point of praising the President’s leadership in bringing the best of 21st century technology to the campus.

We all know the formal ways that the Library can make its case with the Administration. We know that the Library Director can write a memo. The Director can draft a five-year plan showing what the Library’s needs are. The Director can ask for a meeting with the VP for Academic Affairs or the President and make the case for the Library. And we know that just after that meeting the Dean of the Arts & Sciences will be ushered in to make her case, and that after her is the Dean of the Medical School. Formal channels should be used, but there are other things that Xena, Princess Warrior can be doing:

Target campus publications and the local press for regular stories about the Library. Use your own internal publications as well. Make sure those stories convey one or more of these messages:

  • The Library is a technological innovator.
  • The Library provides excellent and innovative services to its students and faculty.
  • The Library is a center of intellectual activity.
  • Important and knowledgeable people have good things to say about the Library.
  • The President must really love the Library because he is pictured there so often.

In other words, the Library is not a boring utility: the Library is a star! The Library is cool! The Library is hot!

And so on. If you have other powerful resource-controllers whom you want to influence, think of a similar strategy. This could be the Provost, the Dean, the Chair of the Board, or the President of the Alumni Society.


All well and good, so now everyone loves the Library. But what about raising money?

Remember that I said that the Library’s biggest problem is being taken for granted, or ignored, or thought of as a utility. Well, the Library has a second problem:


The Library’s second problem is that *everyone* is a constituent of the Library when it comes to providing service, and *no one* is a constituent when it comes to fundraising.

At most colleges and Universities, prospective donors are parceled out to the various fundraising units. Business grads are assigned to the Business fundraisers. College grads to the College. Nurses to the Nursing School. This is at the higher prospect level: that is, the potential to make a gift of $25,000 or more over a five year period. At the lower end, all prospects are assigned to the Annual Giving Office. And that leaves exactly whom for the Library? Or is it exactly who? In any event, it is exactly nobody.


That’s why we need Xena, Princess warrior as our campaign director. Xena knows how to hide behind a tree and then dash out and capture a donor. Xena knows how collect money from bulging purses without anyone being the wiser. Xena may look like a mild-mannered librarian, but underneath—well, you’ve seen her outfits on TV.


Xena starts her campaign by not falling for the Development Department’s suggestion that the Library focus on non-alumni prospects. You know, "the Library gives all those book-talks, so why don’t you focus on all those townspeople who attend the book-talks?"

Forget it. The emotional commitment of non-alumni to the Library will be almost zero. And emotion drives giving. You want red-blooded, grateful, nostalgic alumni prospects—people who attended your institution at a formative stage in their adolescence and who care about good old Sywash, or at least care about impressing the other adolescents who were their friends and have since gone on to make big bucks.


Xena also knows that some alumni carry bigger purses than others. In fact, 90% of your campaign will be met through 10% or less of your donors. Be smart, like Xena, and put 90% of your effort into that 10%. This may sound obvious, but I can tell you that the biggest mistake that fundraisers make is to spend too much time on small-gift prospects. Don’t dash out from behind your tree for every traveler who comes down the pike. Wait for the ones with the big hats and the fancy carriages.


Many libraries decide to create "Friends of the Library" groups for fundraising purposes. I can tell you from experience that most Library Development officers would pull the plug on their Friends group today, if they could get away with it. Sadly, the Friends too often take up 90% of your time for 10% of your potential return. And often if you factor in staff expenses, the Friends of the Library is costing you money!

I am sure there will be questions from the floor about this one, but my advice is: If you don’t already have a Friends organization, consider it a blessing and don’t start one.


So here is what you need to do. If the gate is closed to the Library, you have got to figure out how to get it open. Or how to crawl under it or over it, or find a place in a hedge that you can slip through. If you are going to raise money, then you have to figure out how to begin fishing in the donor pool. And you have to decide what your strengths are, and work with them.


The old jingle goes "nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee." Well, nobody doesn’t like the Library, and that’s a strength. Almost everyone, if pressed, will acknowledge that the Library is essential to the campus. Everyone will agree that the Library serves all students. Everyone will agree that the Library should be supported. That’s a start.

Some library fundraisers have used this start to raise big bucks. In our profession, Joan Hood of the University of Illinois in Chicago, convinced the administration that a Library ask was a good first ask for alumni. The University was just beginning to ask its alumni for funds, and wasn’t sure where to start. Obviously the Library, said Joan, and she made the Library the theme for the University’s early annual appeals. That strategy raised $600,000 a year for the Library.

Joan also argued that the Library was a good "first ask" for major donors. She proposed that University fundraisers take Library projects with them on their calls, with the notion being that it would be hard to say no to a library need or a library improvement. She further argued that the Library would not keep these donors, and that once they had been "activated," they would be ready to consider other University gifts.

Other fundraisers have successfully made the case that graduate-degree holders are great first-ask prospects for the Library. Universities have found that people with advanced degrees are very poor givers, and do not respond to the usual "school color" themes that rally undergraduate alumni. But what do graduate students do? They are the power users of the Library! They know the value of a good library, and they can empathize with the needs of future graduate students. This is a nice niche, if you can get permission to explore it.

Parents are another good bet. An appeal to "buy a book" for your son or daughter is always good for a slew of $50 gifts from parents. Again, you may find that you are "activating" these prospects on behalf of the University, and that’s a good argument on your behalf.


But small donors are not where you should be putting your long-term focus. You want to go deep-sea fishing. The whole point of doing small-gift fundraising for the Library is to identify major gift prospects. And to build a track-record with those prospects. By track-record I mean a record of gifts and attendance at Library events; a record of conversations and visits. A record that you can use to argue that this individual is a "Library Prospect" and that you should be able to ask them for a large gift.

Your fundraising job is to look for wealthy people who care about the Library. I often shorthand this to say that you are looking for a "library-person." You know, just as there are "cat-people" and "dog-people"? Well, there are "library-people."

I am so convinced that there is such an animal, that I recently developed a questionnaire to ferret them out. I am seriously considering sending a letter like this to tens of thousands of our alumni:

Dear X,

Are you a Library person? There’s an easy way to tell. Just take our fast, ten-question poll below. All questions are True or False.

True False Some people can happily spend an hour browsing in a hardware store. For you, an hour spent in a bookstore, or a library, is a source of great pleasure.

True False Sometimes you see the movie and then go read the book. Sometimes you read the book, and it is so terrific that you decide to skip the movie.

True False You can easily list at least five books you would want to take with you to a desert island.

True False Your mother read to you as a child.

And so on. I am not going to give away the whole letter because that generous I'm not!

And with the rise of the Digital Library it gets even better. The academic Library is now a hotbed of technological innovation, and you have the opportunity to attract a whole new kind of library-person. If we can term the traditional library-person a "bibliophile," we are now seeing a new crowd of "technophiles." These technophiles are fascinated with the digital library, and many of them will make great prospects for you. I know because in the past eight years I have raised millions and millions of dollars from "technophiles."


Finally, one more tip. Be a Rug Merchant. If someone wanders into your shop looking for a rug, be sure to have plenty to show them. Don’t just have three gift opportunities for the donor to consider. Have a hundred! "Oh, you don’t like this one? How about this beautiful rug?"

And if you don’t have a rug that interests the donor, offer to make one. What do I mean by that? I mean this: the Library is such a wide-ranging and information-rich environment that you should be able to come up with a project that interests any donor. Does she love her dogs? How about a gift for the Vet School Library? We literally just got a $2 million gift for a new Vet Library from a dog-lover in Nantucket who wanted to honor her veterinarian—a Penn grad.

You get the idea. Look for the "hook"

And before they get the "hook" for me, I am going to stop and entertain questions.

Send comments to Adam Corson-Finnerty ( or Laura Blanchard (