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Volume 15, No. 2 • March 2001
• How-To •
'Food for Fines' Drives: Positive PR That Works!
by Amy Ford

Here at the Williamsburg (Virginia) Regional Library, every month, patrons' comments about our services are compiled into a packet that is given to the board of trustees. When patrons commented on the reference and youth services departments, they submitted glowing reviews about their assistance to patrons. The circulation department, however, got complaints about fines and due dates, and the circulation staff felt that its service wasn't appreciated. In order to improve staff morale, the deputy director of the Williamsburg Regional Library charged a circulation staff member with developing a modified amnesty program, and so 3 years ago, "Food for Fines" was instituted at our library.

The Williamsburg Regional Library isn't large: We have two branches and a bookmobile, serve nearly 46,000 patrons, and own 296,000 circulating items. And our fines aren't excessive: We charge 5 cents a day for overdue children's and young adult items (to a maximum of $3 each), 10 cents a day for overdue adult items (to a maximum of $5 each), and 50 cents a day per overdue video (to a maximum of $15 each). Still, we wanted to promote goodwill to those who owed us money. So we made our Food for Fines system very simple: For each nonperishable food item a patron brings in, we waive the accrued fines on one overdue item, no matter whether it is 5 cents or $15.

Here's how we've run and marketed this successful program over the past few years.

Starting and Marketing Each Drive
Our circulation department works together to decide when to have each Food for Fines drive. We try to decide at least a month in advance, to allow enough time to set up publicity. Our publications manager requires at least 2 weeks' notice for printing our advertising materials. She makes banners for the reference and circulation desks at each of our two branches, as well as letter-sized posters to put on bulletin boards at the library and other places in the community. She sends press releases to the two largest local papers twice in the week before our Food for Fines events, and sends a photo of our staff posing with donations to the paper in the middle of the week as a last-minute reminder. She also makes up a Web page that carries the details and sends e-mail about the event to the subscribers of the library's information mailing list (currently around 400 people). She also prints up fliers for our staff members to mail out with all the overdue/billing notices. (About 250 are sent in the month preceding Food for Fines.)

Behind the scenes, our courier saves the boxes that our new books arrive in so that we can store and transport the nonperishables to their destinations easily. And I contact our local charities and food banks to let them know that we will be having Food for Fines and to ask how many boxes of food they have room for, since we divide our proceeds between four local groups.

Then, during the Food for Fines week, circulation staff members waive fines in our circ system as patrons bring in goods. We add the message "FFF" to the transaction record so we know the reason for the waive. We count the number of items donated, and fill the boxes. When each drive is over, our courier delivers the boxes to our grateful charities.

As for keeping records, our systems administrator has a program that searches our computer system for the "FFF" message and totals it by date, patron number, and amount waived. Later, I use these numbers to compile statistics about our Food for Fines program.

It's Cheap, It's Easy, and It Works!
Really, our only cost for advertising is the cost of the paper we print on. Think about our system: We send out photocopied fliers with our overdue notices, which we're paying to mail out anyway. (This is great direct advertising to our target audience, patrons with overdue items and fines.) We print up posters and banners from our stock of paper. Press releases are published free of charge by our local papers, and our Web page and e-mail notices utilize resources that we already have.

This also doesn't cost us much in staff time, because once we got the program set up, we've had a simple system going. The circulation department decides when to hold another drive, chooses a slogan, and gets the paperwork to the publications manager. She retrieves her templates from her hard drive, updates the information, and prints the new PR material.

We have had eight Food for Fines drives to date, each one more successful than the last. The first two drives were each 2 weeks long, but because donations were slow in the second week, we decided to cut the collection time down to a week. The official program runs from Sunday to Sunday, but we will waive "unofficial" fines on the Saturday before and the Monday after as well, making the actual Food for Fines drives 10 days long.

Our two Food for Fines drives in 1999 waived only 3 percent of the library's usual income from fees, paid lost books, and fines. When we held three Food for Fines drives in 2000, we waived 6 percent of our fine income that year. These are very small percentages from a small part of our total funding—it is not a significant amount of money for the library to lose. In fact, the library may never have taken in that money if the delinquent patrons never came in to pay their fines. However, the waived money is significant to the individual patron. It also encourages him to come back to use the library's resources. This personal treatment is one reason we feel that this program works so well.

So, What Do We Get Out of It?
We benefit by getting back some late and lost books. Plus we get our delinquent patrons to come back. Many of them feel bad about owing money to the library that they can't pay back—others are stubborn and refuse to pay fines above a certain amount. Whatever their reason, they do come back, and they feel good about doing something meaningful for their community in the process. We also gain respect from other community entities, which are continually amazed at the countless ways that the library contributes to the public good. Our local nonprofits and charities are very grateful for the help they receive from us. Staff morale improves, and now circulation staff receive far fewer complaints about fines.

Finally, the positive public relations response that the library receives far exceeds the small amount of money and staff time that the program requires. And the program reinforces the image of the library as a learning place that reaches out to all of the members of its community, regardless of income.

Measuring Participation and Results
Do we really get back more lost and late items during the Food for Fines week? Yes. Comparing the late returns in the 10 days that we accept Food for Fines donations to the 10 days before and after the drive, in most cases late returns did increase, about 3 percent.

We have tried out Food for Fines at many different times of the year, and we believe that the calendar does play a large part in enabling patrons to return their late and lost books. At times when students are finishing school projects, such as in April and June, and after holidays such as Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and New Year's Day, late and lost returns increase regardless of Food for Fines drives. However, times of the year when patrons are likely to return late and lost books are great times to hold Food for Fines drives and increase check-out statistics.

When we tie Food for Fines to events, such as holidays, it makes it easier for patrons to remember when it will be. We try to keep the program time varied—not only is it a good experiment for us, but when the drives are at predictable times, there are a number of patrons who will hoard up their fines to be waived during the food drives instead of paying them and continuing to use the library. We've found that it is best to avoid a time of year that's very busy for the public in general, such as the time between Thanksgiving and New Year's, and the end of summer. We have had the most success around Valentine's Day and before Thanksgiving in November.

In the five Food for Fines drives of 1999 and 2000, 1,314 patrons had fines waived for their donations, according to our computer records. These patrons represent 3 percent of our total number of patrons. This number sounds small, but when you remember that these patrons participated in an event that covers only 5 non-consecutive weeks spread over 2 years, the number takes on a whole new meaning. I should also make it clear that this number does not include all the patrons who dropped off donations without having fines waived. In each Food for Fines drive, the number of nonperishable items donated has been greater than the number of fines waived, proving that some people donate out of simple kindness.

Many libraries waive a set amount of money per nonperishable item—usually $1. We have found, however, that waiving the fines on one overdue item, no matter what the amount, is not only the simplest method for staff to use, but it also encourages patrons to bring in more cans than they need simply to have their fines waived. This makes them feel as though they have gone above and beyond to contribute to our charitable effort and makes them feel good about coming back to use the library.

Helpful Hints for Your Own Drives
Patrons need to understand what is and is not an acceptable donation. We have had to turn away unacceptable donations in the past, which is unpleasant for us and for the patron. We will sometimes receive a bag with a dented can or opened jar in the bottom. We try to make sure that these items do not go to the local food banks.

Patrons also need to understand exactly which charges we will and will not waive. We try to make it very clear that only fines will be waived, and not the replacement costs of lost or damaged items.

In August 2000, we tried a variation of Food for Fines where we collected school supplies instead of food. While this was a good experiment, we found that not as many patrons participated.

Food for Fines is an easy, inexpensive program that any library can benefit from. For a minimal outlay in staff time and a negligible loss in income, the library reaps enormous returns in public relations, staff morale, circulation statistics, and lost-item recovery.

Amy Ford is a circulation assistant at the Williamsburg Regional Library in Williamsburg, Virginia. She is currently responsible for running the Food for Fines program. She has a bachelor's degree in English and philosophy from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Her e-mail address is

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