Library aims to spread donations more equitably

Grant money to be guaranteed at all branches in 2020

Linden Hills Library
Linden Hills Library. Photo by Zac Farber

At nearly all of Hennepin County’s 41 libraries, including the Walker, Washburn and Linden Hills branches, volunteer-led organizations hold regular fundraising campaigns. The money generated is then used by the libraries to buy arts-and-crafts supplies, to support adult-learning lectures or to help fund other location-specific programming needs.

Some of these local Friends of the Hennepin County Library chapters have been raising money for decades through book sales, and library officials say they’re grateful for the “neighbor-to-neighbor outreach” and want to continue to encourage the community’s enthusiastic pro-library boosterism. 

But over the past several years, the library has identified and sought to address disparities in how funds raised by local Friends chapters are distributed throughout the library system. 

Local Friends chapters in affluent communities like Edina, Eden Prairie and Maple Grove have consistently raised more money than groups tied to libraries such as North Regional and Webber Park, and some of the system’s libraries do not have an active Friends chapter. 

“If you’re trying to have a book sale in a community where people don’t have a lot of books to donate or don’t have ready cash to purchase the books, then it’s not going to work,” said Teresa Mercier, supervisor of the Linden Hills Library.

In 2018, local Friends chapters raised a total of $255,000. While they chose to give $18,000 to a redistributional “equity fund” launched the year before, about 70% of the total was given to the chapters’ home libraries. 

For the first time starting in 2020, the county-wide Friends of the HCL organization will seek to address this inequity by guaranteeing every library in the system a minimum level of unrestricted funding. (The exact amount has yet to be determined.) 

“We want people to feel like you can be part of your local library whether you can raise money or not,” said Kristi Pearson, the executive director of Friends of the Hennepin County Library. “There’s a perception that’s based in reality that if you don’t have a local Friends group, you’re not getting all the extras that others are getting.”

Pearson pointed out that the money raised by local Friends groups is a small part of a larger ecosystem. The centralized Friends of the Hennepin County Library organization, which raises money from individual and corporate donors, handed out $1.1 million in grants in 2018 — supplementing the Hennepin County Library’s $86 million operating budget.

Many library initiatives sponsored by the centralized Friends group have an equity focus, Pearson said, and programming includes after-school tutoring at 14 libraries and a teen technology center at the Minneapolis Central Library. Local Friends chapters have been contributing to these system-wide initiatives since 2015 and gave more than $50,000 in 2018. 

“We’ve always had a mindset of equity,” interim Hennepin County Library director Janet Mills said. “This is just a very particular aspect — the local Friends funding — that we want to bring some change to.”

Cynthia Haskell, co-president of Friends of the Walker Library, said that over the past few years, local Friends chapters have been encouraged to focus less on fundraising and more on volunteering. A book cart still brings in about $1,000 a year, she said, but they have stopped hosting a costume jewelry sale.

“There’s a shift happening,” Haskell said. “They would like us to give more [non-financial] support to the library.”

Pearson said that details of the new funding mechanism are still being worked out, but libraries with thriving local book sales should see few changes in 2020.

“What’s being funded won’t change much,” she said. “But these other libraries that have had nothing will have a pot of money designated for local Friends, resources and programming. It’s a small amount of money, but it will make a huge difference.”