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Volume 15, No. 8 • December 2001
• Cover Story •
Planning for Success at the Election Polls
by Pat McClary

Have you ever had to ask your local community to increase their taxes to provide you with funding to build a new library or to expand your current one? Do you find yourself struggling to create a strategy that will help voters understand what the library needs are? Do you need to place a “millage” or “bond proposal” on your community’s election ballot? (A millage is a portion of each tax dollar that is designated for the library’s specific cause or project. A bond proposal is usually a combined community request to improve recreation facilities, the zoo or art institute, and support the library’s needs.) Whatever direction you take, you don’t have to feel overwhelmed with the tasks involved in managing the election process.

You don’t need a large budget, advertising agency, or major media campaign. You just need a plan and a “grass-roots” strategy created with the library resources already at your fingertips. Success in an election campaign to raise funds for your library is a direct result of collaboration, cooperation, and support from the library community. The election campaign is built on a foundation of disseminating information to your library community and advocating a vote in your favor at the polls. This article will outline six steps that can help you win votes on election day.

1. Define the Library’s Need
The key to developing a successful plan is to create a list of library needs and then determine exactly what you want to accomplish. The library administrative team can be instrumental in identifying problem areas and opportunities. During the discussions, think about photographs, videos, and interviews that might be helpful in presenting your needs to the community in a visual format. Later you can use a camcorder to record building infrastructure damage, crowded spaces, or testimonials from library users. Then use these tools to create group presentations and design advertisements for your information campaign.

Now that you have determined what you need, draft the ballot language, ask legal counsel to review it, and obtain your library board’s approval to place it on the ballot. Be aware of your locality’s strict time limits for the process. Generally, there are legal deadlines for submitting language and obtaining the necessary approvals. Coordinate your activities with local election officials and determine what your specific requirements are.

2. Create Your Key Message
You’re nearly ready to start, but you must take a few initial steps first:

Now create your key message and focus. The message should be simple, such as “build a new library” or “renew a millage.” Avoid lengthy explanations, data, and history. Keep a clean, neat style that expresses excitement, fear, or touches on the lifestyle and values of your community. Reinforce the value of your library as a community resource. Create an image for your audience. Make people feel what you feel, see what you see, know what you know, and understand what the library needs really are. Keep your information short, factual, and to the point. Design materials to appeal to your audience and be sure to translate all informational and advocacy materials for your bilingual community.

During your campaign, use three basic informational tools: 1) a brochure to inform and to advocate a “yes” vote, 2) letters to solicit support from staff and others, and 3) a press kit to make announcements, share information, and position your library “front and center” with the media.

3. Contact the Library Stakeholders
There are many stakeholders in the future of the library. A stakeholder is someone that both values what the library is and invests his or her time, money, and support. They are:

Use library advocates to help you spread the word. Saturate the voting community with opinion leaders and informants that carry your message.

In most states around the country, the library’s role in the information campaign is restricted to informing voters by announcing that there is a library referendum on the ballot and giving the specific ballot language. While this is limiting, it is important. Never assume that the library community is tuned in. Tell them what the library needs. Be specific. Talk in terms of library service, buildings, hours, collections, and technology. Be consistent in your message to staff and community in newsletters and public speaking engagements.

Friends of the Library groups or community committees can serve the library during the election process in two ways. They can raise funds to support the campaign and they can ask people to vote in favor of the library. An election committee formed by a Friends organization or community committee is required to register in most states, and by doing so is licensed to accept donations on behalf of the library.

It is also vital to establish an advocacy committee that consists of community and corporate leaders. Bill Weatherston, former director of Friends at the Detroit Public Library and current development director for the Salvation Army of America, shares his experience during the Detroit Public Library’s election campaign in February 2000. “I received an overwhelming response to the Friends’ request for support. Detroit’s top government, corporate, community, and labor leaders joined in an effort to support the library by lending their names, talking to community groups, soliciting donations, and offering services. With their help, we were able to print campaign materials, develop media components, and distribute literature to a larger contingency of volunteers in the community.”

4. Talk to Anyone Who Will Listen
I can’t emphasize this idea enough: Get the word out! Share information! However, script your message. Formulate it to tell voters what you want to do (if you have a successful millage) and why it’s important to the library community. The information should then be shared with staff, voters, library cardholders, Friends, volunteers, and the media. And by all means create a speaker’s bureau of library advocates to conduct town hall meetings.

Schedule staff meetings to share information about the election issues and tell staff what the library promises to do if the election efforts are successful. Your employees are major stakeholders and they have direct contact with library customers, who are also voters.

Work with the election committee to identify voting and other mailing lists that can be used to send valuable information. While using cardholder information is a “no-no,” it is perfectly acceptable to print information in event calendars, bookmarks, and other communications such as newsletters or fliers. Your Friends or community group can use specific membership newsletters and mailings to encourage eligible people to vote for your proposition on the ballot.

Library volunteers can work closely with the Friends or community group to create a strategy to distribute fliers door-to-door or to community organizations, neighborhood clubs, churches, and anywhere people gather. Community hot spots include recreation and senior centers, barber and beauty shops, and local restaurants. This approach is more direct and asks voters to approve the library proposal.

You should include the media by disseminating information through news releases, setting up interviews with designated spokespersons, and alerting them to photo opportunities. Be sure to develop a press kit. It should include a general press release that tells your audience about what the library needs and gives basic information about the proposal language that voters can expect on the ballot. (Don’t forget to note the date of the election.) Include a fact sheet about the library. Connect your facts to the reason that you are going to ask your voters for money. You can also ask your support groups to write releases in favor of the proposal and include their own reasons for asking the community to vote favorably. These releases should also identify spokespersons that can be contacted for interviews or more information. Finally, give specific activity dates for volunteer events, election rallies, or town meetings.

5. Publicity, Publicity, Publicity
No matter how large or small your election budget is, there are a few major components of a basic public relations plan that you can’t ignore. First, create a simple brochure that tells voters what the library will do if the proposal is approved. The advocacy groups can use the same brochure. Next, develop a bookmark and flier that will be distributed at key points in the library including the circulation or information desk, reference desks, inside doorways, and near computer stations. Use the same flier with a “vote yes” message and distribute it throughout the community during public meetings, speakers’ engagements, and related events that are hosted or presented by your advocates.

Media opportunities abound. Take time to create a list of key media contacts. Telephone them and talk about the library. Refer them to members of the Friends group, or election committee, or other highly visible community supporters that are willing to be interviewed and to present their broad perceptions about the library. Send out news advisories and photos of volunteers at work with simple captions. These are always received well and are usually printed because they are easy to use.

You can easily produce a public service announcement (PSA). These are advertisements that media outlets will run, often for free, to assist nonprofit organizations that need to educate their audiences on issues that have an impact on everyone in the community. A PSA can be an ad in the newspaper, a recorded message for radio, or a simple prerecorded tape that creates a visual message for television. PSAs can be placed on local cable television stations at a very low cost. Remember to allow plenty of lead-time (up to 6 weeks) in your schedule to develop and place your PSAs. Prime space becomes more limited when lots of paid advertisementsare placed to push major candidates or “hot issues” during the election period.

Here’s one example: A library wanted a millage to reopen several of its branches. Someone took a photograph of a student in front of a closed branch that bore a sign directing library users to another open building. An added voiceover talked in “sound bites” about the importance of offering library service to all and referred to the “big picture.” The end message was “Vote for Proposal L!” The photograph was first formatted as a print ad, and a similar radio spot was recorded.

Another inexpensive PR tactic is to create a simple “drop-in” ad for your church and community newsletters. These can be distributed with a letter from your advocacy groups asking for their support and requesting time for appointed speakers to talk to their members.

Use major events and special announcements to talk about the plans of the library and to increase awareness of the proposal. Make sure your library committee is also making the intent of the ballot proposal clear. You can even set up information hot lines via telephone or e-mail. Leave nothing to chance.

Finally, use banners on your library building(s) to remind people to vote on election day.

6. Celebrate, Review, Evaluate, and Then Say Thank You to Everyone
When the election is over, win or lose, the library and its committees must take the time to celebrate and review. Thank you letters and perhaps a reception, if appropriate, should be planned for voters, committee members, staff, volunteers, supporters, and even media contacts.

Say thanks on banners or lawn signs. To save time and money, pre-print your anticipated message on the reverse side of your banners when you order them. Carry the message on bookmarks, and write followup articles for library and community newsletters. Remember to make special announcements and recognize individuals and groups that helped.

Finally, evaluate yourself. What were your successes? What could you improve on next time? What would you add or change in the next election? Whatever you do, keep in touch with your library community through announcements, invitations to special events, and other communication tools. Always keep your voters informed. Remember that the next election is just a campaign away.

Pat McClary is a marketing consultant with more than 17 years’ experience, and was the assistant director of marketing for the Detroit Public Library. She holds a B.S. in business administration and an M.L.I.S., both from Wayne State University in Detroit. She was to begin a new career as librarian with the Oak Park (Michigan) Public Library in November. Her e-mail address is

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