Librarie$ + Nonprofit$ Add Up to Profitable Community Partnerships
BY Jeanne Holba Puacz
About 18 months ago, we at the reference desk of the Vigo County Public Library
(VCPL) in Terre Haute, Ind., noticed a troubling fact. Many of our small, local,
nonprofit agencies did not have Web sites, making it difficult to locate and
share information about these groups with the community. We began to ponder
that if we, as information professionals, had trouble locating information
about these groups, how would the rest of the community ever learn about their
valuable services and programs?
Doing Market Research
Several VCPL staffers, including Clarence Brink (the head of our reference
department), Chris Schellenberg (the community services librarian), and I (a
systems and reference librarian), decided to investigate why so many of these
groups had chosen not to maintain their own Web sites. The groups, we began
to discover, had not decided against having Web sites; rather, most felt that
they were unable to afford the luxury. Many of us today take Web sites for
granted. We automatically assume that all organizations will have easily accessible
and informative sites. However, for many of our nonprofit organizations with
severely limited budgets, designing and implementing a Web site can seem like
a completely unattainable goal.
We sensed an opportunity and began to formulate a plan. What if the library
could partner with these nonprofits to help them create, post, and maintain
informational Web sites? The nonprofits would benefit, as they would get a
Web presence at no cost; the library would benefit, as information about these
local groups would be easily accessible when needed to answer reference questions;
and the community would benefit, as it would be far easier for the general
public to learn about the value of these local groups. The potential benefits
of this type of community-building partnership seemed to far outweigh the liabilities,
but, as with all projects that demand library resources, this project had to
be formally evaluated before it could be approved.
Developing the Project
When we presented our idea for approval, we were disappointed to find that
not everyone was as excited about our partnership proposal as we were. The
library administration and board of directors were concerned about how much
time it would take library staff to build the sites, how and how often site
updates would be made, how much library server space the sites would consume,
and which local groups would be eligible for participation. Rather than allowing
these concerns to dampen our enthusiasm or quash the project, we decided to
try to use them to our advantage. We addressed each concern and incorporated
the limitations into a library policy and a partnership agreement that the
library would enter into with each nonprofit organization that chose to participate.
The issue of how much staff time would be necessary to build each site was
easily addressed. We opted to create a simple design template that would be
used for each organization, thus dramatically reducing the time it would take
to build each site. We also decided to ask each nonprofit to send us the information
they wanted on their site electronically so it would not have to be re-entered
by the library staff.
The VCPL systems staff members were extremely concerned about the project.
They were afraid that we intended to give each group access to the library
servers so that the groups could regularly update their own Web sites. We decided
that this access was impractical. Not only would it pose a serious network
security risk, but also, since most of the organizations targeted would have
little-to-no Web authoring or posting experience, this access would provide
no actual benefit for them. Instead, we decided to offer to update the sites
for the groups involved. To limit the amount of work that this would impose
upon us, we stipulated that groups could send updates on a quarterly basis.
To calm the fears that this project would consume all the available library
server space (and then some!), we decided to limit the total size of the sites.
Because our intention was to make informational Web sites available to these
groups, we did not feel that this would lessen the impact of the project. By
limiting the total size of the sites to 100 to 300 kilobytes of space, we could
ensure that there would be adequate server space for all interested groups
(with plenty left over for the library). Although these limits may seem severe,
they have actually proved to be quite sufficient for the sites that we have
completed. The template ensures that the sites are primarily text with space
for a few pictures; this helps to ensure that the file sizes are small and
fall well within the limits.
Deciding Which of the Organizations to Include
Deciding which organizations to include proved to be a somewhat troublesome
issue for us. We wanted to be as inclusive as possible; however, we realized
that this could lead to our being overrun with demand or, more distressing
to our administration, being asked to develop a site for a group that might
be in conflict with the library's mission. To avoid problems, we developed
the criterion for inclusion with the help of our administration. We invited
all Vigo County nonprofits with 501c3 status to participate in the project.
Those nonprofits that do not have 501c3 status but that are already actively
partnering with VCPL on a project or goal (as well as those that have been
included in our local Community Resource Directory) are also eligible. In an
effort to also serve local groups that do not meet the project criteria, we
decided to offer Web-design training classes to all Vigo County nonprofit organizations.
Creating a Resource Guide
The concept of serving all groups in the community, even those that did not
meet the criteria set for participation in the Web site project, prompted us
to re-evaluate our goals. We began to feel that we could and should expand
the scope of the project. The library regularly receives questions relating
to nonprofit organizations: how to form them, how to locate and apply for grants,
how to file taxes, etc. Who better than us to create a portal of links to connect
our community and our community groups with this valuable (but often difficult
to locate) information?
Thus, the project grew from simply developing Web sites for select nonprofit
groups to developing a resource guide designed to aid all local groups and
the community at large. In addition to information about how to partner with
the library to develop a Web site, the Web resource portal would also include
such items as a directory of local nonprofit organizations, Indiana-specific
nonprofit information, tips on how and where to find funding, information about
how to become a nonprofit, tax information from the IRS, and links to the incredible
resources of The Foundation Center. This resource guide is intended to be dynamic;
it will be updated and revised continually as we find and add new information
that is deemed potentially valuable to our community.
Finally Setting Up Shop
Once our guidelines were established and approved, we were ready to start
contacting groups that might want to participate in the project. Many local
groups would meet the criteria, so which should be first? Our community services
librarian proved invaluable in solving this dilemma. She suggested we start
with the ones that were already working closely with the library on other projects
and even volunteered to contact the targeted organizations.
The first people we contacted were very excited about the project and its
potential. They happily supplied us with text and pictures and were thrilled
to receive completed, albeit small, Web sites in return. The positive reactions
of the initial groups have been great advertising for the project. They have
shared their Web sites and their experiences with others. Now, instead of the
library having to contact potential partners, interested groups are starting
to contact us!
Closing the Deal
We received approval for this project about 12 months ago. In less than 1
year, the Vigo County Non-Profits: Information & Resources Project, as
it has been dubbed, has gotten well under way. At this time, we have partnered
with 15 local nonprofit organizations to create and host their informational
Web sites. We have also created a nonprofit directory that includes listings
for several hundred local organizations. Directions, forms, and tips for becoming
a nonprofit, finding funding, and filing taxes are on the project's Web site.
What started as a simple idea for making information about local nonprofit
organizations more accessible has now developed into a profitable partnership
between the library, the local nonprofits, and the community.
Check Out Some of Our Sites
Vigo County Non-Profits:
Information & Resources Project
First Book of the Wabash Valley
Greater Terre Haute Branch NAACP
Mental Health Association in Vigo County
Saint Ann Clinic
Wabash Valley Literacy Coalition
Jeanne Holba Puacz is a systems and reference librarian at the Vigo County
(Ind.) Public Library. Additionally, she is the library Webmaster and is responsible
for the majority of the public computer training. She received her M.L.S. from
the University of IllinoisUrbana-Champaign. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.