Even though many people struggle to make ends meet during these trying times, especially on the financial side, today’s chaotic situation revealed one unique character of humans: the desire to connect through giving. Jenny Marsh of the Vancouver Public Library Foundation proved this to be true when they launched a fundraising campaign to improve their building and support their transition to the digital realm. She shares with Douglas Nelson how they successfully raised money just by getting in touch with their cardholders and how the foundation’s board leveraged philanthropy to acquire financial support from the government. Jenny also explains the one thing she did not expect to find when fundraising: a meaningful connection with people that even money cannot satisfy.
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Vancouver Public Library Foundation With Jenny Marsh
Our guest is Jenny Marsh. She’s the Executive Director for the Vancouver Public Library Foundation. We’re pleased to have her on the show. Welcome, Jenny.
Thank you, Doug. It’s great to be on the show with you.
Jenny, I have been wanting to get you on the show for a while now because you had been leading what was an incredibly successful capital campaign, the Storeys That Transform Campaign, and you’re nearing the end of that as the pandemic struck. I was hoping right off the top, you could tell us how that campaign has been going and what you’ve been doing.
That campaign was going well until around the time that the pandemic struck. It was starting to slow down a bit before then. We had reached a lull in our activity on the construction and planning side. The first phase of the campaign, which was the expansion of the Central Library, to include these two top floors that few people knew about and expand out onto the outdoor space to create a beautiful public garden. All that had happened, and people have been flooding into the space and using it. That was exciting. We hadn’t started though doing detailed planning for the lower levels yet. That caused a bit of a pause. On the fundraising side is a lot of prospective donors were interested in seeing the plans. The pandemic struck and all of the spaces were empty. In some ways, what a great time to do construction, but what a difficult time to take donors on tours and show them why we need to expand these spaces and renew them. It’s hard to demonstrate that when the spaces are empty.
One of the things that I’ve heard you talk about in the past is that the role of philanthropy in public libraries is to help them level up on a consistent basis. How do you approach that leveling up?
The library has done an incredible job of leveling up even without philanthropy and in a financial situation that was for them extraordinarily uncertain. They’ve inspired me in many ways. We have wanted to do for the library at this point is to raise funds that are un-designated as possible, but if designated only loosely towards expanding the digital library. Before the pandemic, the library was using digital resources to some extent and Vancouverites were using digital resources to some extent, but there was so much more room to do more. When it became urgent that we do so, the library was operating to about 30% or even less than that, about 20% of the staff that they would normally have.
Within a week, VPL went from a busy public space delivering programs, services, and materials to people face to face to a skeleton crew trying to deliver the same programs, services and collections to people digitally. They had some of the infrastructure for that, but not all of it. As time went on, VPL did quite an extraordinary job of delivering a lot more to the public than they had. The public responded warmly to that with something like tripling of digital library usage over a 3 or 4-month period and lots of people signing up for library cards. During that time, we weren’t providing any funds to VPL for this work because we didn’t know what they needed funds for. They were pivoting quickly that they were trying to make things work with what they had. About three months in, they were able to come and say, “If you get money for the digital library, we will be able to use it to deliver more.” We did that and then the content started to flood out. VPL is offering storytimes on Facebook. They typically have about 700 people attending these storytimes every day. I believe that’s more than we had in person and that’s just one program.
One of the things that I love about public libraries is that it is that essential, vital public space of people coming together. As many people who’ve had children know those storytimes are an essential part of the first few years of a kid’s life, to be able to get exposed to those stories, but as also to give a place to take the children and be exposed to those types of things. How have your donors responded when you said, “We’re moving away from the capital project to create these spaces, to building these spaces in the digital environment?” What was the reaction that your donors had?
They were supportive. Many of our capital supporters are still paying out their pledges, and we don’t want to stop that because we know these spaces need to be constructed. If they can be constructed while people aren’t in them, that would be even better. Our branch is open to some extent. The traffic entry you can imagine is a lot lighter. Our campaign donors are paying their pledges and many of them stepped forward with additional gifts to support the digital library. We acquired some new supporters of the digital library through our board and our donor networks. Our base of annual supporters has been wonderful. What’s most meaningful about their support is not always easy.
Not everybody is in circumstances where it’s easy for them to make a gift. The amounts aren’t necessarily large, but the meaning behind those gifts is huge. We get donations of $25 with notes next to it saying, “I lost my job. When I get one, I’ll give you more, and I’m using the library to find a job. I know I’m going to be successful. Here’s $25 for now.” A lot of people making gifts that are a bit smaller than they might normally make, but including those notes of encouragement to say that they loved the library and they need it. It’s the last thing they want to cut from their giving if they can.
That’s a powerful story that you’re sharing there and probably an inspiration for the hard work that you and your team do. You also mentioned that the pandemic has allowed you to open new doors and a new audience for the Foundation’s message by connecting to VPL cardholders. Tell us a bit about how you’re able to expand that community that you’re able to speak to as a foundation.Law libraries are here to remind us what we have in common and keep us talking to each other. Click To Tweet
The library saw what had been happening in our communications with our regular supporters, that our regular supporters seemed almost grateful to be able to continue to support the library, even if they didn’t have a lot to give. That’s inspired the people at the library. It’s been a tough year for library staff, 80% had to be laid off at the beginning of the pandemic. Connecting with donors and hearing how meaningful it is for them to be able to support this institution that means so much to them. That message was coming back to the library leadership, both staff and board. Hearing that, they began to wonder if maybe it wasn’t an imposition to ask library cardholders to give, but perhaps more of an opportunity for those cardholders to show their support. At the last minute, quite close to the end of the year, the library team and I were able to get their board to approve an email going from the library to its cardholders, inviting them if they wanted or in a position to support the Foundation. The response to that has been wonderful. About 1% response rate to that email, which was the first email VPL had ever sent to its cardholders on mass.
You mean other than reminding people that they have a book to pick up or they owe a fine?
More individual things, “Everybody, this has been what our year has been like. We’re grateful to you for continuing to use the library. The Foundation is an organization that’s helped us adapt. If you want to support the Foundation, you can make a gift by clicking here.” VPL sent up at about 200,000 emails and we got about a little more than 1,500 responses and raised about $150,000 through that appeal, which for a little organization like ours represents 3 or 4 times what we would normally raise in our winter appeal. It had a profound effect on us and ultimately the library financially. What was most meaningful were the notes that were coming through with the donations and the conversations that my team and I are having. We phone every single donor, which is an old school thing to do, but we’re all about stories here at the library. We like to hear people’s stories. We like to thank them personally, and because we’re small, it’s a habit.
We phone everybody and we all made our calls, and we’re hearing the same thing again and again, which was, “The library gives me and my family so much. This isn’t asking for a lot. In fact, I’m grateful to be able to give.” It feels like a real community. That’s what libraries are here to do, to remind us of what we have in common and keep us talking to each other and keep us connected even if we don’t all have exactly the same beliefs. Libraries encourage communication and debate and respectful dialogue, all those things that come add up to be a community. We’ve felt a strong sense of being anchored in a caring, thoughtful, wonderful community as a result of that campaign.
What jumps out at me, there is one of the things we see working with clients who are asking, particularly those that are connected to civic entities like Vancouver Public Library. When we ask cardholders or users or members to make a gift, what often comes back is people grateful for the opportunity to say thank you with their giving. It’s hard to convince administrators sometimes that that’s the response they’re going to get when we ask people for money, but it sounds like you’ve captured that sense of VPL is important in people’s lives and the opportunity to give back is important as well.
I don’t think we did anything special to do that. That’s the human spirit and the true meaning of philanthropy and people, in many ways, why they give. We want to be connected to something that’s greater than ourselves as an individual, and by giving to an institution that aligns with our values, we are connected and we’re a little less lonely and no lonely time.
I wanted to take a step back. There are many places we could take this conversation, but I want to step back and talk a bit about how you came to be the executive director for the Vancouver Public Library Foundation. You had a background working in post-secondary fundraising. We were talking about the fact that we both had spent time working in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia in our past. We didn’t overlap. Talk about what the appeal was of this foundation when you started there several years ago. What did it feel like starting with an organization that you were going to be building?
It felt like coming home. I know that’s a weird thing to say, but I’ll give you a little context. My mom was a teacher-librarian, and she opened the library at Fredericton High School when it first opened, it’s the largest public high school in The Maritimes. They had a huge library. My mom’s job was to get it all ready for this grand opening of this gigantic new high school. While that was happening, she was pregnant with me. When it was opened, I was an infant. There weren’t any maternity leaves so my mom brought me to work. I was in a book cart a lot of my infancy. I’m on the car seat. She put it on the book cart and wheel it around the library. There would be books on the top. That’s how she did her job.
My dad helped out and I wasn’t always in the library, but I was in there a lot and I knew a lot of librarians growing up, educators and people who love books, and publishers. My mom ended up moving into educational publishing. I’ve grown up around a lot of book people and librarians. When I heard about the opportunity with VPL, I immediately contacted a leader in some ways in the library community. I don’t know. I’m not going to pretend to know everything about the library community. Destello was the Dean of The School of Library Information and Archival Science at UBC for several years and then did the same thing down in California for quite a while and consulted. He’s retired now, but he’s one of my mom’s closest friends. I phoned him up and asked him about what this was.
It didn’t look legitimate. The applications were going to an office of an investment firm. I thought that was funny but when I drilled down on that, it was a firm of someone that I had met a couple of times and had tremendous respect for. That person was Terry Salman, our Board Chair for many years and a good friend of mine and a mentor. I was excited to work with Terry, although I still didn’t understand why the applications were going to his office. The organization had this endorsement from an old family friend. I came in feeling comfortable with the team as far as I knew it. As I met more and more people on the team, I got more excited about what it meant. When I say that, I felt like it was coming home.
Walking through the library, I had to come up to the seventh floor for my interview. I hadn’t been to the Central Library since my son was an infant. I would go down to the children’s library to take the programs that haven’t been for 8 or 9 years at that point and walking through the library and seeing the diversity of the people here in terms of, not just ethnic diversity or cultural diversity, but in terms of stage in life and position in life. It’s quite inspiring to see business people and students and the homeless population and newcomers, all working, learning, discovering, and creating side-by-side. To walk up through seven floors of that on the escalators and absorb that, it felt inspiring and at the same time comfortable for me. I was sure that this is where I belonged.We want to be connected to something greater than ourselves by giving to an institution that aligns with our values. Click To Tweet
It’s worked out, you’ve been there for several years. You’ve got a bit left in the campaign. As we are starting out in 2021, what are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to working with all of these wonderful library supporters who are now foundation supporters. I’m excited to have a larger database to work with because it means that we can offer more to our donors. We’ve been wanting to do more events for our donors, but when we have a small audience, it’s hard sometimes to fill things up and now that’s no longer a problem. We launched an event series in partnership with Legacy Senior Living. We will be exploring each book in the series of mysteries by a local author, Iona Whishaw, online in a Zoom format with our donors and supporters and with anyone else who wants to come in and join us. We’re looking forward to having 40 or 50 people in the audience of this Zoom meeting, whereas last time we did something like this, we had ten. It’s a lot more fun when you have more people taking part. Expanding that community and what we can do together in terms of helping the library to try more new things and be more ambitious in making, learning, and culture and community accessible for everybody in Vancouver. With more funding, that’s what we’re able to do with them. That’s exciting too.
You said an important word there, more ambitious. I’m curious, what did the conversations with your board been like as the organization has gone from a good idea several years ago to now something that is providing significant and important funding for the Vancouver Public Library? How has the board changed its view of the work of the Foundation?
The Board of the Library has changed its view far more than the Board of the Foundation. The role of the Foundation is essentially exactly the same as it was when I started, it’s just that we’re looking at a bigger scope. With that comes better accountability, more professional communications and presentations. From the Foundation Board perspective, what they look for, it’s a leveling up on everything that we’re already doing, but where I get excited in terms of shifting attitudes is when I think about the relationship with the Library Board, because that has grown so much over the last several years. Coming into my first Library Board meeting was an uncomfortable moment for me because I sensed that the Board didn’t understand or necessarily support the role of fundraising in public libraries.
That’s a bit difficult when that’s your job. The Library Board is the group that has approved, for example, reaching out to cardholders. This represents a huge shift in their view of fundraising and what its role can be. They’ve gotten a lot savvier about leveraging philanthropy to access government funding, for example, the primary funder of the Library is the City of Vancouver. Part of our capital campaign funding structure was to leverage philanthropic dollars to get more money from the city and say to the city, “We’re committed to this that we’re going to find a way to raise $15 million. If you can put in $9 million or $10 million, then we can do something that everybody in the city will be able to enjoy for many decades to come.”
The city politicians were supportive of that. There was a plebiscite, I don’t know if you noticed it if you vote in Vancouver. They put it to a plebiscite and voters had to decide if they were going to allow the city to spend $10 million on improving the library. It was a true partnership. That was a partnership that was championed by the Library Board and continues to be championed by the Library Board. They’ve come from being suspicious about fundraising to being supportive and quite sophisticated in understanding how philanthropy can help them to do their job better, which as a board member is to get as much municipal funding support for the institution as they can.
That is a huge ship to turn. Was there a moment or a story that you can share about when you realized that the Board was coming around and was going to see the value of the Foundation?
Not a single one. There are many different ones and there have been lots of ups and downs. The moment that they approved this blew me away, but it didn’t seem anything momentous. To them, it wasn’t a big deal because over the years, they’ve got comfortable with me and the Foundation that it seemed like a no-brainer. The fact that it seemed like a no-brainer, to me, was momentous. There were lots of difficult conversations. There are lots of conversations about, “How do we know that you’re going to approach someone whose name we would be comfortable having honor in one of our buildings?” Those were years of conversations with the Board. It took a long time to work through to ultimately a high degree of trust because there’s no way. I’m sure you’ve tried, Doug, to figure out how boards would want to pre-approve donors sometimes. You can’t do that.
We were working with a client in 2019, and they’re standing in front of the board and says, “What if a gang leader or a terrorist wanted to name our science center?” I said, “You would say no.”
As long as you knew that.
There are reasons to be careful, to have rules and have policies, but for people who aren’t familiar with philanthropy, it never ceases to amaze me how quickly they’ll jump to the worst-case scenario.Giving is a way of connecting. Click To Tweet
There’s a lot of fear and trepidation, especially when you get into the larger gifts. There’s always a story of someone who didn’t pay their pledge or someone who did pay their pledge, but then your name has to get taken off of the building because it’s something that happened later.
You’ve made this change with the VPL Board. Your Foundation Board is onsite and wanting to do more and more. Through this pandemic, what have you been able to do or what have you found yourself needing to do to keep your team motivated and focused on what matters most?
Half of my team is on maternity leave now.
They’re focused on other things.
They are a bit, although I still hear from them, they’re still giving me feedback as donors on our communications. Two of the staff team are on maternity leave and then those who are here now, everybody on my team, something interesting and maybe this isn’t unusual that we all share is an appreciation of the role that libraries play in public life. It was easy to see how that didn’t go away when COVID hit. With the reports that we were getting from the library, which were coming as a video call from the chief librarian every week, we were hearing how many people were accessing.
They would create an online program and it would get flooded with people and then they would do one other thing, and it would get flooded with people. It was difficult not to see that there was a real need for support for these new kinds of programs and collections that people were accessing such huge numbers. I didn’t have to do much to convince the team because they were already library lovers and library users. In one case, one member of the team is a former library employee, not this system, but he worked in libraries in Saskatchewan. Everybody on the team are all book nerds and library people. We get that there are thousands more like us in the city, and that need only increased when COVID hit and people couldn’t leave their homes. The team is all empathetic people as well. We wanted to make sure that those users have what they needed to get through this. We wonder how long we’re going to be dealing with it because what you need to get through it over the short-term isn’t necessarily the same as what you need to get through it when we’re looking at years rather than months.
I have two questions to ask you as we wrap up. The first is, when we started this pandemic, many social profit leaders, everyone was thinking maybe this is a couple of weeks, maybe this is a couple of months. It’s proven to be a much longer-term thing. We use the phrase here “switching from a sprint to a marathon, but still running as fast as you can.” Looking back, what advice would you give to yourself on March 13th of 2020 with the benefit of being here in 2021?
I would have advised myself not to halt our spring appeal, which we did because we freaked out and didn’t want to offend people by asking. A lot of people had that initial reaction. We skipped one of our appeals as a result of that which I have seen was necessary. People are happy to be asked even in this time. Even if they’re themselves facing more difficult financial circumstances than they had before, they’re still happy to be asked and no one seems to be offended. I would encourage myself to keep asking, even when it feels awkward, and to spread the word, to be a little louder about it. We were quite tentative in the beginning because we were afraid of offending people or being too demanding when it was a tough and scary time for a lot of us. The Library is the reassuring place. My team does a good job of echoing that, and in many ways, carrying on the ethos of the Library in the way that we communicate with our stakeholders. Our donors feel like we are safe people to talk to, and they don’t feel pressured or targeted. I wish we had been a bit louder about asking, but now that we’re doing it, we’re getting wonderful responses and we’re going to keep on with that until someone tells us to stop.
I don’t think anyone is going to tell you to stop. My last question is, what piece of advice are you trying to keep in your mind now as you look forward into 2021, as we hopefully get back to normal or our new normal by the end of this year? What message are you trying to keep close to your heart and in your mind to guide you and your organization through 2021?
It’s that idea that giving is a way of connecting. We’re separated from one another now, and no human feels good in that state. It’s getting harder and harder the more this becomes a marathon for me to have this diminished social circle and these somewhat diminished connections, or to maintain that circling connections without seeing people. The gifts that we get, the notes that come with them, the conversations that we have with our donors remind me that giving is a real way of connecting and that asking for a gift is a way of connecting. We’re not just asking people for donations. We’re building connections and community through the work that we do. That makes it feel meaningful and rewarding to me. It’s part of why the relationship our organization has with our parent, the Library, is strong because we shared that value.
You’ve mentioned values and connection to cause many times throughout our conversation. It’s no surprise that’s what you’re holding close and using to guide you and your organization in 2021. I wish you much success. I look forward to seeing great things from the Foundation in the months and years to come. Thank you for being on the show.
Thank you, Doug.