Growth Industry: A "Disruptor" Helps Libraries Navigate an Expanding Funding Landscape

The Boston Public LIbrary. photo:  Richard Cavalleri/shutterstock

The Boston Public LIbrary. photo:  Richard Cavalleri/shutterstock

Look across the philanthropy space and you'll find many funders encouraging libraries to embrace accessibility, inclusion, and technological innovation. The space certainly isn't suffering from a lack of good ideas.

Nor is it suffering from a lack of money. There are a surprising number of funders that give to libraries in pursuit of a range of goals related to education, youth, immigrant incorporation, workforce development, and more. And if recent developments are any indication, there will be no shortage of funding opportunities in the future.  

Rather, the big challenge facing libraries is the lack of access to these funding opportunities. Librarians didn't sign up to be fundraisers and can find navigating the worlds of institutional grantmaking and major donors to be baffling.

Now, however, they have help, thanks to a new data tool and suite of training offerings courtesy of The Foundation Center.

"Libraries are overlooked and underfunded organizations that play a critical role in today’s society by providing free programs, resources, and services to millions of adults, children and youth every day around the United States," the center's site reads. "But many libraries lack the resources and support to innovate and build upon the ways they can meet their communities' needs."

Let's start with the center's first new resource, the Visualizing Funding for Libraries data tool.

According to the center, the tool "can help public, academic, and school libraries, as well as special collections, archives, and digital libraries, identify funding opportunities to support innovative projects and solutions for their communities."

This is no small feat. The larger funding landscape is incredibly vast and dispersed. By homing in on the specific field of library funding, the center's tool helps users identify major players, increase understanding of funding sources, and track funding trends.

The center created the tool with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, one of philanthropy's leading "creative disruptors" focused on transitioning libraries into the 21st century.

Click here and test drive the tool for yourself. You'll find over 66,704 available grants totaling $3.5 billion. The center puts the total number of funders at 10,814. Not too shabby.

Of course, this encouraging news surfaces a somewhat inconvenient reality. Many librarians didn't plan on writing grant proposals or cold-calling foundations. Nor did they expect to be sitting behind a computer screen spending hours on something called the Visualizing Funding for Libraries data tool.

This fact undergirds the center's second offering—its suite of webinars, in-person meetings and e-learning offerings aimed at helping libraries get a hang of the data tool while providing professional conferences hosted by library partners. 

Bottom line, here? The center and the Knight Foundation have rolled out a product for which there is demand. The new tool and its accompanying menu of training offerings would be unnecessary if there wasn't money for the taking. 

What's more, anecdotal evidence suggests demand is growing, particularly with it comes to the untapped potential of public libraries. 

For example, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation gave $55 million to help renovate the New York Public Library's Mid-Manhattan Central Circulating Branch in an effort to create a more inclusive and welcoming visitor experience.

Meanwhile, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation's investment in the Baltimore Library Project is predicated on the belief that modernized public libraries can "override almost any negative impact poverty has on a student’s academic achievement."

Which brings me back to the key funder behind the center's tool, the Knight Foundation.

While the foundation has been making grants to libraries for more than 50 years, since 2014, it has focused increasingly on "funding innovation in libraries and collaborations to help them adapt to the changing needs and behavior of people in the digital age."

In the intervening years, it has made $10.2 million in grants to more than 40 projects.

Knight envisions libraries not as a static, transactional concept, but as open and flexible community spaces where donors can promote accessibility, equality, and civic engagement. And as the new gifts continue to roll in, I can't help but notice that many of them echo these same themes.

Viewed through this lens, the value of the center's tool and training modules is obvious. As more funders get on board and awareness emerges around libraries' utility, more funding opportunities will inevitably follow.