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Volume 12 Number 2 • March 1998
Attracting and Managing Public Funds
by Martín Gómez

Editor's Note: This is a speech that Martín Gómez gave last November, and it's been edited and published here with his permission. Gómez is the executive director of New York's Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), the fifth-largest system in the U.S. with a central library, a business library, and 58 branches. As a nonprofit corporation with an annual operating budget of $65 million, BPL leadership obviously knows where to find funding and how to use it for successful programs. So, Gómez' speech, which was given at a meeting of METRO, the Metropolitan New York Library Council, will offer some valuable tips about funding.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of a library leader is the ability to attract funds for a special library or community project. There are a variety of funding sources available. Private dollars are available from corporations, wealthy individuals, and private foundations. Thousands, if not millions, of dollars are available from government agencies, too. I'll discuss how you can exercise leadership by acquiring and managing public funds for your library program.

What do you need to know about acquiring and managing public funds? First, you must have a well-thought-out program or project to sell. For most governmental funding agencies, this project must meet a clearly stated need. You'll find that the funding criteria are often stated in such broad terms that you can invariably find a rationale for submitting an application to many government agencies, not just to those directly involved with libraries. Secondly, you need to know where the money is.

Selling Your Idea

How do you go about making your idea the one that gets the attention of the funders? First, you must do your homework. When you have identified a service or program need, you will have to back up your claim. Funders will want to know what information you have to support your assertion of need.

Just as important, though, is your relationship with the funding agent. The success that you have in selling your idea will depend more on the relationship between you and your supervisor, your institution, the administration of the institution, and the government agency to which you will have applied for funds. It is the people who administer the grant funds. This is why it is critically important for you to not only know who they are, but more importantly, for them to know who you are. Many of the individuals from these program offices attend library conferences. Some are willing to pay a site visit to your local library. At the very least, all of them have telephones.

You must also know why they are giving money away. For every government funding program, the agency is required to publish grant guidelines. How do you obtain this information? Read the Federal Register. Call the agency directly. Call your local state library. Call the Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington, DC. But first, call your library director or supervisor to determine how the goals of your organization match your project idea. If there is not quite a match, then your job is to convince them that indeed there is compelling reason to do this project anyway. Your job is to begin laying the groundwork that will match your library program or service need with the mission of the institution.

Once you've convinced your institution that your project idea is a good one, you need to begin laying the groundwork with the funding agency. Let's talk, for example, about state library agencies. Each state library is required to develop a "plan of service" that outlines how they plan to spend literally millions of dollars in federal money to assist local libraries in their state at developing new and innovative service programs. I strongly recommend that you obtain copies of the plan from your state library and look for areas that most closely match your project idea. In theory, you should have done this initially, before you presented your idea to your library administration.

In addition, state libraries often host workshops to give specific tips on how to apply for funds. When you attend these workshops, don't just leave after the session. Go up and introduce yourself to the presentors; let them know what you are thinking about.

Establishing Your Credibility

Once you've initiated your relationship, you need to establish credibility. People will want to know more about you and about your institution. Will you be able to implement your project? Will your institution make a commitment to the project and, just as important, will it agree to sustain the effort after the grant money has been spent?

Credibility is based on reputation. Reputations are built on small successes. If you've not demonstrated your ability to manage a program successfully, you will have a hard time convincing others that you are capable of managing a new grant-funded program. Brag about small successes. It demonstrates that 1) you have some experience in this program area, 2) you've established a relationship with the community, and 3) the library has a commitment to serve this segment of the community.

This is not just about you and your credibility. Successful programs are not necessarily the result of one person's ability to work singlehandedly, but rather, result from careful collaborative efforts of many individuals working toward a common goal. In this process, you are actually beginning to establish credibility with those who work with you, for you, and within your institution.

Finding Sources of Public Funding

So where is the money? At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, it's all around us. In essence, your challenge is to get a piece of the funding cake. Like the story of the little red hen, you must participate in the making and baking of the cake to ensure that you get a piece of it. Ideally, you should not be standing in the kitchen when the cake is done, waiting for your crumbs. Instead, you should have contributed the ingredients to ensure that there is a significant slice for you to share with your community. Don't wait to get invited into the kitchen. Be one of the chief bakers.

No two local public libraries are alike. They all have unique funding methods and formulas. For example, 85 percent of the $65 million budget of the Brooklyn Public Library comes from the City of New York. The remaining portion comes from the state and a mix of public and private grants. It is my job to make sure that we are making funding proposals (suggesting ingredients) that will result in a well-funded library (cake). This year, I am happy to say that through our combined efforts we have raised an additional $4.3 million in public monies for books, children's programs, and new initiatives. On the private side, we have succeeded in raising over a quarter of a million dollars for a new Multilingual Center that will be part of our Central Library, bringing our total private fundraising over the last 6 months to a little over $1 million.

Second only to local funding, I believe that states provide the greatest source of new grant funding for your ideas. Many states not only have their own grant programs for library service, but many have state libraries that are responsible for administering millions of dollars of federal money for libraries and education-related projects. Let me review a few specific funding opportunities.

These are just a few of the potential sources of governmental funding available to libraries. Many others exist. The Department of Commerce is providing funds for enhancing the telecommunications infrastructure in this country. The program is called the TIIAP, or Telecommunication Information Infrastructure Assistance Program. The Department of Education has its Early Start program as well as its Head Start program, which is proposing a stronger linkage with libraries. Many libraries across the country successfully apply for and receive grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to expand the humanities to low-literacy, economically disadvantaged communities. The National Science Foundation supports digital library projects.

If you take the initiative to apply for funds, you must also take the responsibility to make sure that the funds are spent appropriately, that reports are completed and submitted on time, and that the program funding agency receives the appropriate credit and recognition. I think that managing the resources is the easy part. And by the way, don't be shy about bragging about your project and how it has benefited the community. Everyone likes to hear good news.

Summary: Success in Funding

  1. Think strategically. What are the current trends and buzzwords that will help you to advance your library project? Immigration, collaboration, literacy, and reading will all be very important issues in the next few years. Are you prepared to wrap a grant application around these subjects?
  2. Get to know the funders, programmatically and personally. Attend grant workshops. Locally, get to know your library administration, especially the development office and the budget staff.
  3. Learn how to make a presentation. Often it is not what you say but how you say it that counts. The best grant applications that I have read are the ones that have had the simplest and clearest presentation of ideas. The best of those grants have been able to tie their grant objectives to a very understandable budget.

Martín Gómez is the executive director of the Brooklyn Public Library in New York. He serves on many boards, including the Library of Congress National Digital Library Advisory Committee and the Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science Advisory Committee. Gómez is also running for ALA president for 1999.

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