John Chrastka is the former membership director at the American Library Association, and has left that position recently to start a political action committee for library advocacy purposes, called Every Library. This organization is about three months old at this point. I had heard of it and realized that I didn’t know anything about it, so I contacted John and asked him some questions. He agreed to be interviewed for this blog. I think our interview goes into a good degree of depth at explaining what Every Library is doing and how you can be involved.
John, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. I want to start simply by asking you to explain what Every Library is and how it got started.
Rory, I appreciate the chance to connect with your readers about EveryLibrary and our work helping local ballot committees talk to voters about libraries. EveryLibrary grew out of a gap in national library advocacy work. The existing associations and organizations that advocate for and support libraries, like ALA, OCLC, the Gates Foundation, and most state library associations, are all 501c3 organizations. They do great advocacy to the public and decision-makers through projects like Geek the Library, the @yourlibrary campaign, and I Love Libraries. They focus their efforts in bringing advocacy messages about the value, impact, and importance of libraries in our communities and campuses – and in the lives of our users – out to new audiences. Their work in D.C. and state capitals to pass legislation affects issues of access and funding. But none of these advocacy groups or campaigns can say “Vote Yes” to the public, directly, on either ballot measures or candidates. As a 501c3 they are not able to use charitably donated monies to do direct voter outreach to endorse a candidate or ballot measure. EveryLibrary exists to fill in that gap, at least when it comes to local ballots. We are set up as a 501c4 social welfare organization. We are intentionally politically active and are technically the first Super PAC for libraries. And as such, we can do advocacy and talk directly to voters and ask them to Vote Yes for a library ballot measure.
That is really intriguing. So what exactly are Every Library’s activities in terms of talking directly to voters?
EveryLibrary is all about building capacity for library political action at the local level. Somewhere near 97% of all public library funding is appropriated locally. We are set up to help local ballot committees and PACs do voter education, outreach, and get out the vote work. We do that in two ways: providing direct funding to the local committee to do an effective “Vote Yes” campaign, and consulting services to help ensure that the messaging is solid, the voter data is useful, and the volunteers are well trained. You won’t see generic commercials from EveryLibrary. If you live in a district with an EveryLibrary backed ballot measure you will see the local committee’s message about their own library and proposition. We’re transparently behind the scenes.
Where does the funding come from to do this work?
To date, we have received 100% of our funding from individual donors. As a c4, we are not eligible for grants or foundation money. Like other politically active organizations we are looking to both small and large individual donors who believe in our mission. We are reaching out the corporate community both inside and outside the library world. And we are approaching unions and other issue-PACs for resources. We are a lean organization and have very little overhead. Every dollar goes to work helping to win on Election Day.
I think many librarians and other library advocates may not be aware of the importance of donating money for this purpose. What are you doing to raise funds from the public? Are you able to do much with the funding that presently is coming in? What do you feel you need to raise to accomplish your goals in addition to what is coming in now? You’re brand new, so I would imagine some potential donors might want to see a track record that there is no way of showing yet. Is that the case?
I am happy to say that we have our first success already! We backed “Yes for Spokane Libraries” on a Feb 12th, 2013 ballot measure. The Spokane Public Library had a $1.6 million 4-year dedicated levy out to the voters. EveryLibrary provided about 25% of the funding to the “Yes…” committee do voter education and get out the vote. The library ran a great informational campaign but the chance to back an active Vote Yes campaign – with phone banking, yard signs, and a little door-to-door canvassing – was wonderful. They won with 66% of the vote. Having EveryLibrary there in such a substantial way was important for them and for us. All that funding came from individual donors.
We have a funding plan in place that will provide us with the resources we need to support several dozen campaigns in the 2014 election cycle while laying the foundation for to support any campaign we’d want in 2015 and beyond. Our fundraising plan is to continue to ask for donations from librarians and library supporters but to broaden the ask to the general public. Whether it is direct mail or telephone solicitations, both cost money to do. We know that we need to build capacity for campaigns so we’re going to be out there doing that kind of fundraising in the fall. But until that time we’re working on telling our story about supporting libraries at the ballot box to some key larger donors who can support our early work.
You referred to Every Library as a “Super Pack,” and mentioned local PACs working on ballot measures, saying that Every Library assists them. What is a Super Pack, technically speaking? And also, regarding the behind-the-scenes work that Every Library does to help local efforts, can you talk about the expertise that your group offers to the local ballot organizers or PACs, what specifically you are doing for them?
The term Super PAC refers to the way we’re organized. As a 501c4 we are a Social Welfare Organization and our charter makes it clear that we do not work on candidates for office at any level of government. Other “regular” PACs do candidates. Super PACs can raise funds from individuals, corporations, unions, and other PACs to support their particular issues – and expend funds to advocate for their issues. Our issue is libraries and our mode of advocacy as a Super PAC for libraries is to work supporting local ballot measures. For example, when a library puts a Bond Issue on the ballot to build the first new library since Carnegie died there are millions of dollars at stake and the potential to have generational impact on that community. If they win, it is a game changer for services, programs, collections, and librarian jobs. If they lose, it could be a huge setback for the community. We work in support of a local PAC or ballot committee to provide seed money to help them campaign as well as technical assistance to run that campaign well, if needed. We can help by looking at the voter data and doing voter segmentation. It is critical to the success of campaigns to “touch” high-turnout voters with your message. We can help by doing pre-polling about voter attitudes about the library and the ballot measure. Knowing where you are going with messaging in your community is important. We also can help with the messaging, design, and outreach techniques from planning through execution. There are a lot of resources we’re ready to bring besides funding.
Right now, we’re helping the “Citizens for a New Shorewood-Troy Library” committee with voter segmentation and developing their precinct ‘walk lists’, working with them on messaging, and training their volunteers on how to do door-to-door canvasing. We’re not involved as part of their committee – they run their campaign and make all the decisions on how to expend their funding. But we help build capacity within their committee as consultants.
Well, I would just like to say that I think what you are doing sounds really great. I am wondering what people can do if they want to support Every Library and show their support. Also, I’m wondering what kind of partnerships you have or are planning to start with other organizations.
We built the organization with small donations – $10 or $100 goes a long way when we’re talking about library ballot measures and voter outreach. When something fails at the polls it doesn’t usually fail by huge numbers. In a district with a service population of 10,000 people, perhaps 6,000 are registered voters and maybe 1,800 will come out for a library election. If they lose by 3% or 4% (which is not atypical), that’s 55 or 60 votes. We think that we can do a lot to educate and influence 61 voters with not too much money. If you agree that this idea matters because every one of those ballot measures matter to the future of that library, you can donate at www.rally.org/everylibrary. We’ll put it right to work.
Throughout the spring we’re going to be announcing several partnerships and key funders that will help extend and expand our work. Stay tuned.
That sounds great, John. This was very informative. I want to encourage readers to donate – it seems like a very effective use of funds. Thanks for doing the interview.
Rory, I truly appreciate the chance to talk about EveryLibrary and to be featured on Library Juice press. It was an engaging interview. Thanks so much.