In New York, Crowdsourcing Ideas for How Funders Can Help Public Libraries

Ask an average American to name a big accomplishment of philanthropy and they may well cite Andrew Carnegie's famous support for building libraries around the country. These days, though, library giving isn’t exactly a hot area of giving. As we’ve noted in the past, most big donors overlook libraries. Although the promising role of modern libraries can easily intersect the interests of funders around the country, many wealthy donors don’t feel the same sense of connection to their local libraries as, say, to hospitals and arts organizations around town.

But as we've reported, some funders in New York City and elsewhere remain deeply dedicated to libraries. This spring, we looked at a $20 million gift to the New York Public Library by Merryl Tisch and her husband, James, to help the library expand its educational programming.

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

Also notable is an effort by a trio of funders who've come together to support New York's libraries. The three funders are the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the Charles H. Revson Foundation, and the Heckscher Foundation for Children. In the past, we’ve highlighted Stavros’ and Revson’s library support, but not so much on Heckscher yet.  

These three funders have collaborated to fund the fourth annual NYC Neighborhood Library Awards, and last month, they announced 10 finalists for the $20,000 prizes. Heckscher joined the other two funders on their co-supported initiative both last year and this year. But Heckscher’s role is a bit different.

This third foundation is funding a separate Heckscher Prize for Outstanding Service to Children and Youth to a single library branch. The libraries nominated will be evaluated by Heckscher based on their programs, classes and events for New York City’s youngest residents. And the winner of this Heckscher-specific award will also get a $20,000 grant. It’s important to note that Heckscher isn’t a library funder per se. However, it’s a great example a funder seeking solutions for its niche mission through libraries. Heckscher’s main goal is to provide equal access to education and experiences for underprivileged youth.

A record-breaking number of New Yorkers (at least 24,000) took the time to nominate their favorite library branches and explain how they’ve been useful for everything from job skills courses to immigration services. With $20,000 prizes, New York libraries will be in a better position to increase services, make building repairs and increase safety measures. Five winners will get $20,000 grants, and the other five will receive $10,000. These funders are also awarding a Perennial Excellence Award to library branches that continue to do good work year after year.

The 10 finalists are as follows: Allerton Library, Edenwald Library and Hunts Point Library from the Bronx; Queens Library at Bayside, Queens Library at Lefferts and Queens Library at Woodside from Queens; Chatham Square Library and George Bruce Library from Manhattan and Crown Heights Library, and New Utrecht Library from Brooklyn. The panel of judges this year includes authors like Francine Prose and Min Jin Lee, as well as the executive director of the National Book Foundation and the CEO of the Chicago Public Library.

Something that these and other funders of libraries need to pay attention to right now is building infrastructure. Libraries around the city have air conditioners that don’t work, roofs that leak, and maintenance issues that are downright unsafe. The capital needs of just the 10 finalists that are part of this award program total over $40 million. Grants in the $10,000 to $20,000 range aren’t going to solve these libraries' infrastructure issues. But this kind of money can still make a difference at local library branches.