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Dispatches from PLA 2014 — Tools for Winning at the Ballot Box

by on March 18, 2014

At a Friday afternoon PLA 2014 session entitled “Tools for Winning at the Ballot Box,” former St. Louis County (Missouri) Public Library Director Charles Pace recounted how, in November 2012, his library led a successful campaign to pass a six-cent tax increase for renovations necessary for updating the library building in 21st century style. The tax increase, ‘Proposition L’ was passed with a 58% majority vote. ‘Proposition L’ required Pace to dive into ventures beyond his normal practices and those of the library. His efforts required a more vested exercise in fundraising, networking, cultivating relationships, collaborating, and enlisting the consultation of many public, legal, and political advocates who could share his and the library’s vision.

St. Louis County Library had zero debt prior to undertaking Proposition L. The County Library had not been a subject of the polls since 1983, and there had not been a county tax increase since 1973. Therefore, quiet preparations were required for the tax campaign. In doing so, Pace hired a campaign manager and support staff from scratch. He even had to raise funds to pay this team. Their first step was to survey the community as to their opinions library renovations.  The survey was conducted by a focus group, paid for by the Friends of the library. After two rounds of preparatory polling and initial assessments, the team found that there would be majority support. This led the team to begin their marketing campaign.

Pace carefully placed billboards throughout the community informing citizens about library resources and programs. These ads could be paid for by the library because awareness was not a direct ‘Proposition L’ action. However, the positive responses could be reviewed to evaluate favor for continuing with the renovation campaign. As the team developed, they recruited a leadership committee composed of prominent citizens who could serve as allies in the future for the campaign. They also hired professional marketers. After further assessment, they found that the county library had a 92% favorable rating, which was higher than the local zoo.

The team gained a large chunk of support from the business community, which contributed over $200,000 for marketing the renovations. Other recruits included local churches, organized labor, and two major newspapers. Despite generating $450,000, the team met half of their expectation for fundraising their advertising campaign for Proposition L. It was still a great accomplishment, as  Pace would go on to add, “Fundraising is not my strong suit. But it pushed me beyond my limits.” Their lack of funds-raised led the team to employ grassroots efforts such as enlisting the support of college students participating in door-to-door marketing.  If more funds were available, they would have added radio plugs for the campaign.

In reflection, Pace offered poignant advice for future endeavors. Make sure to continually network throughout your career to cultivate relationships and add allies who can push and support your messages; hire a good political consultant to gauge the campaign’s success rate and cost; explore legal issues and pitfalls; and don’t fool yourself into believing that everyone shares your passion and love of libraries.

Before attending this program, I noticed that many of the sessions throughout the week at PLA 2014 often concluded with some concern about funding for libraries, projects, and staff. The stories offered from this program provided great examples and advice for how public libraries can find the money needed. This was done by observing and communicating with their patrons, consistently partnering with banks, businesses, and local enterprises, and cultivating those relationships. Collaboration across fields can be a powerful remedy.