Monday, December 03, 2007

Library Advocacy or people like to bet on the horse that has already won

Library advocacy is a tricky business. Libraries can often advocate from a crisis perspective, which means "I need money or something bad will happen". A crisis perspective can sometimes work, but like many non-profits, people do not react well to a constant crisis or constant need. In fact, it can often be associated with someone who doesn't manage their money well. What would you say to a dear relative who constantly asked you for money because they were broke? You would want to know how they spent their money and how your donation is going to help them with the caveat that you don't get asked again.

It's an investment
Instead, people want to see their money as an investment in their future. If you were starting a business, you would come up with a business plan, ask a bank for a loan, then ask some investors for money. In this way, advocacy is presented as an investment not a band-aid. They want to invest in something that will benefit them, their community, and makes them look smart. Furthermore, nobody would want to invest in something that would appear as a risk, they want to invest in something that is already successful and will make them money. In short, people like to bet on the horse that has already won.

How would this approach work?
Here are some examples of the use of language from crisis to investment:
Example 1: We're out of space!

The library is out of space for materials, we need more building or we won't be able to add more materials!

The library is planning an expansion to provide an enhanced collection for your needs.

Example 2: Our computers are old and broken!
The library needs more computers to bridge the digital divide, otherwise people will be left without access!

The library is planning to expand its technology access with more computers. This enhancement will ensure that you will be able to get on a computer whenever you want to.

Example 3: We need a new main library!

Our current library is in poor condition. A consultant recently stated that the building was so bad, that it had a terminal lifespan of less than five years.

The library wants to ensure great library services that is always available to them and close-by. This new branch will enhance services for the future.

Good News versus Bad News
Don't get me wrong here, if the library IS in a major crisis, this information shouldn't be hidden. However, if you always lead with the bad story, it doesn't make anyone feel good. It makes the community feel like they don't care about their library. Worse, it makes the budgetary authority look bad, which will make the road for increased funding more difficult in the future. Furthermore, dramatic approaches like closing on Sundays only hurt the users of the library, it doesn't cut across to the right people. Bad news can be overwhelming.

Part of this post was inspired by two things. Walt Crawford's recent rant about non-profits where he talks about what works for him in getting him to donate.

"Somehow, Second Harvest (which gets incredible value for every dollar contributed) manages to get by with one or at most two mailings a year. No unwanted crap. No real guilt trip: They lay out what our money can buy, they lay out–succinctly, without horror stories or grotesque photos–what the problem is. It’s a pleasure to write a good-size check."

When I read that, I thought "That's true, people don't want to hear bad stories, at least, not all the time. In fact, people will begin to filter you out if your story is always the same and always bad." Hence, I wrote this post. I am also reminded of the failed property tax vote in Mesa, Arizona and the failed levy vote in Jackson County, Oregon. They both sold the vote as a bailout. All this demonstrated was that they were incompetent as opposed to providing an enhancement or improvement. Transparency helps in this process. If everybody already knows your situation, bad news doesn't need to be touted. Everybody knows that you are doing all you can to provide good services, therefore, when you ask for funding, it is pretty clear as to why.

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