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Handbook for Library Trustees of New York

Library Friends and Foundations

Many libraries form a Friends of the Library organization to help achieve a variety of short and long-term goals. The role of a Friends Group is distinct from, but related to, the role of a board of trustees. The members are civic-minded people who know that quality library service is important to the life of a community and who are willing to volunteer their time and talents to help the library succeed.

Friends of the Library groups are independent organizations, separate and distinct from the library and the library board. While their purpose is support of the library, the “Friends” have a separate corporate existence. They should have a separate federal tax exemption and their funds should not be mingled with the library’s operating funds. Depending on local needs, Friends of the Library do many things:

  • Create public support and awareness for the library and its programs;
  • Raise money for capital campaigns or for direct gifts for items not in the library's own budget;
  • Work for library legislation or increased appropriations;
  • Sponsor and support library programs and events;
  • Volunteer to work in the library or on specific tasks and projects.

The independent corporate and financial status of Friends of the Library can be especially helpful in fundraising and budget vote campaigns. A library cannot use public funds to influence the outcome of an election, but a Friends group may use funds they have raised, within the Grassroots Lobbying limits set by the IRS. They can pay for postage, mailings, and other publicity designed to create a favorable outcome in a library’s funding vote.

Friends of the Library can be valuable members of the library team when they are organized carefully and when their purpose is clearly defined and structured. Trustees provide citizen control and governance of the library as required by law. The library director manages the operations of the library. The Friends of the Library provides an opportunity for interested citizens to assist in developing the library in ways identified in consultation with the board and the director.

It is essential that all parties in this arrangement understand the responsibilities and the limits of their roles. Frequent, clear, open communication about needs and expectations is the key to a successful partnership between the board, director and Friends of the Library.

Library boards can do a number of things to help and support a Friends group:

  • Be certain that there is a written policy statement about the Friends, their role and their relationship to the board of trustees (a sample operating agreement is available from United for Libraries);
  • Work with the Friends and the library director to be sure that Friends have clear and appropriate assignments and that their talents are being used well;
  • Meet with the Friends board formally (perhaps semi-annually) to help the Friends plan and define their goals;
  • Appoint a library trustee to act as liaison to the Friends board;
  • Be open and welcoming to suggestions, questions and communications from the Friends;
  • Have an annual joint meeting with the Friends to review the library’s plan, budget and the Friends’ role for the coming year;
  • Ensure that the members of the Friends are routinely shown sincere appreciation for their efforts.

More information on library Friends groups is available through the American Library Association’s United for Libraries and the New York Library Association’s Friends of Libraries Section.

Library Foundations

Many of the state’s largest libraries and a few smaller libraries as well, also utilize a library foundation to attract support.  While the Friends may handle the “day to day” fundraising typical of libraries, foundations are generally established to solicit major contributions for capital projects or ongoing programs beyond the scope of normal library activities. 

Foundations tend to be more sophisticated in their legal organization due to the number and variety of tax laws and regulations to which they are subject. 

For these reasons libraries are advised to thoroughly research the pros and cons of establishing a foundation and to seek advice from similar libraries that have done so before embarking on such an endeavor. Find more information from United for Libraries.


Related Policies and Documents

  • Friends Group Memo of Understanding