Why Aren't More Big Donors Giving to Public Libraries?

Andrew Carnegie's giving to create thousands of public libraries around the United States is one of the more well-known stories of how philanthropy has improved life in America. Most of those libraries are still around today, and even in the age of the internet, libraries remain very popular institutions that play a variety of vital roles in U.S. life. Seniors, parents with young children, students, veterans, the unemployed and immigrants all make big use of America's 9,000 or so public libraries. 

Which often leads us to wonder: Why don't we see more gifts to libraries? Sure, we've seen some such gifts, but not many as you might think at a moment when so many new donors are showing up in philanthropy looking for places where their money might make an impact. Libraries could certainly use a boost. In many cities and towns, public libraries are hurting because of budgetary cutbacks—and more cuts may be on the way with the Trump administration targeting federal library funding. 

One appealing feature of supporting libraries is that because they do so many things, donors can find a piece of that mission that speaks to their own interests and concerns. 

Consider a $20 million gift to the New York Public Library that was announced earlier this year by a prominent couple, Merryl Tisch and her husband, James, to help the library expand its educational programming.

If the Tisch name rings a bell, it's because this is the same philanthropically active Tisch family we've written about before in Inside Philanthropy. This clan not only believes in giving, but cares deeply about New York, the scene of many of its gifts. 

As a child growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Merryl Tisch frequented her neighborhood branch of the NYPL and has long valued the role libraries play as education centers for their communities. She is the former chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents. James Tisch is president and CEO of Loews Corp. and sits on the library's board of directors. 

The $20 million gift from the Tisches, which NYPL's chief branch library officer called the first educational gift of this scale to any library in the nation, will create a director of education position. That person will ultimately create the vision for how the gift will be used.

Merryl Tisch told The New York Times that she would like to see the funds expand the library's educational offerings of English language classes, as well as add job training courses, after-school programs to help students with homework, and offer students greater exposure to the library's research centers and their holdings. NYPL is respected for its child and adult literacy classes and its technology training. The Times reported that the library's adult coding classes have a waiting list of more than 1,000 people.

This is a perfect example of the important role that libraries can play in a community. Yet while we see a steady stream of eight-figure gifts going to institutions such as hospitals, universities and cultural organizations, libraries rarely attract the kind of money that the Tisches gave. What's more, we can't think of many top foundations that make grants to libraries as part of their programs. 

One problem here may be that libraries are perceived as public institutions that don't need private support. Of course, other public institutions attract big gifts—such as parks, public universities, and public hospitals. Another reason may be that the wealthy just don't make much use of libraries and don't develop loyalty to these institutions. The same could be said for many other Americans. One recent survey found that the percentage of people visiting libraries has fallen in recent years. Whatever the reason, libraries just haven't excited many major donors—despite the different goals donors can advance through these institutions, as the Tisch gift demonstrated. 

Although some people encouraged the Tisches to support a building project, Merryl Tisch indicated she was more interested in supporting programs, a move consistent with her background in education. As chancellor of the state board of regents, she led New York's implementation of the Common Core State Standards and supervised rollout of new teacher licensing exams and a new evaluation system for the state's teachers. The evaluation system met with controversy because it tied teacher evaluations to student test scores. Since Tisch's departure from the board, some of the changes she ushered in have been rolled back.

Tisch told the Times that her support of the library will not end with the $20 million gift from the couple. She also plans to lobby Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration to increase funding for the library system so that more branches can open on Sundays. At present, less than 10 of the library's 92 branches are open seven days a week. 

Earlier this year, we reported on an effort by the Charles H. Revson Foundation to support library branches through the  NYC Neighborhood Library Awards.