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The Benefits of Public Library Foundations

by on September 17, 2015

Do you ever dream of entering the Million Dollar Sticky Game (from Matilda by Roald Dahl) for your public library? With a still sluggish economy, public libraries are eager to find ways to bolster their budgets.

In 1999, a report was published by Boston College Social Welfare Research Institute, heralding a Golden Era of Philanthropy. The study was completed by Professor Paul Schervish and John Havens. The prediction was that a $40 trillion transfer of wealth would take place from 1998 to 2052. (Wealth transfer is when money is moved from one place to another, either from person to person or person to organization.)  Naturally, public libraries were avid readers of the report. The future was so bright, we had to wear shades (props to Timbuk3 for the line).

And then the recession of 2001 happened. Two years later, Schervish and Havens published an article standing by the validity of their study. And then the Great Recession of 2007 – 2009 happened. Schervish and Havens were a little more cautious and waited until 2014 to publish another article titled “A Golden Age of Philanthropy Still Beckons: National Wealth Transfer and Potential for Philanthropy Technical Report.” The model created by Schervish and Havens was updated to produce new estimates for the period from 2007 – 2026 as well as the 2007-2061. The estimates actually exceeded the original numbers; the new wealth transfer amount is between $40 and $52 trillion in the 55-year period, based on a 2% growth scenario – with almost $30 trillion as a potential fund transfer to charity.

If even a fraction of these amounts are possible, public libraries could stand to benefit if they play their cards right. One tried-and-true method to reach benefactors is through library foundations, which can be significant fundraising and marketing tools. In 2013, the Wilmington Trust published a report about public library foundations. The report revealed that 79% of U.S. public libraries use foundations, reaping an average annual fundraising net of $2 million and garnering assets of over $12 million. Of the largest public libraries in the U.S. with foundations, the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation is one of the oldest – it has been in existence since 1891 and recent donations were just shy of $7 million. By comparison, San Diego’s Library Foundation was founded in 2007, with recent donations of almost $8 million. Both started in the late 1980s, the Chicago Public Library Foundation recent donations totaled almost $4 million while the Queens Public Library Foundation received $3.6 million.

With foundations providing such clear economic support, is there any reason why the remaining 21% of public libraries would want to miss out on this opportunity?


Dahl, Roald, Matilda.  New York:  Puffin Books, 2007.

Dillingham, Walter J., Public Libraries in the United States: Overview and Insights on Library Foundations (New York NY:  Wilmington Trust, 2013.)

Havens, John J and Paul G., Millionaires and the Millennium: New Estimates of Forthcoming Wealth Transfer and the Prospects for a Golden Age of Philanthropy (Boston MA: Boston College Social Welfare Research Institute, 1999.)

Havens, John J and Paul G., Why the $41 Trillion Wealth Transfer Estimate is Still Valid:  A Review of Chalenges and Questions  (Boston MA: Boston College Social Welfare Research Institute, 2003.)

Havens, John J and Paul G., A Golden Age of Philanthropy Still Beckons:  National Wealth Transfer and Potential of Philanthropy Technical Report (Boston MA: Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, 2014.)

Timbuk3.  Greetings From Timbuk3.  MCA record B000TTO2CO, 1986.

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