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Library foundation raises $700,000 in seven months

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DAVIE HINSHAW - THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER
Children from First Ward Child Development Center jump when prompted as ImaginOn story teller Rene Kimray reads to them during story time Oct. 30, 2013.

The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system seemed on the verge of a financial meltdown in 2010, after its biggest funder, the county, cut $10 million from the system’s budget.

Desperate cuts had to be made, so library officials closed some branches, reduced hours, laid off staff and ended some popular programs.

The four years since have been a time of rebuilding, and there is no better example of the library’s rebound than the nonprofit foundation it created to find alternative sources of money.

Foundation officials set a goal of raising $1 million this fiscal year and the community responded with $700,000 in donations in the first seven months.

The goal is to raise enough by 2017 to fund a $20 million endowment, which would be used to cushion the library from any more drastic budget cuts.

Mandy Drakeford of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Foundation says she’s optimistic, given the strong corporate response to the fund drive.

Bank of America and library leaders teamed up last year to issue a $175,000 challenge grant that resulted in $183,000 in additional donations. (Part of the money will go toward the endowment and part will go to pay for library programs, books and materials.)

Bank officials said the money was an acknowledgment of the library’s role in Mecklenburg County’s economic growth through improved education. That’s exactly the message the foundation is promoting through an ongoing series of seven community meetings.

“I think we are doing a better job of telling the library’s story and the impact it has on the community,” said Drakeford, a communications and marketing specialist with the foundation. “I don’t think raising funds is going to be easy, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

The creation of a library foundation was one of 39 recommendations made by the Future of the Library Task Force created to find ways to make the system more financially stable. All 39 recommendations have been acted on, including a study into whether the Main Library site in uptown should be vacated and sold. It’s staying put.

Jenni Gaisbauer, executive director for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Foundation, noted the library and it’s supporters have a long of history of raising money in the community. However, creating a foundation makes it easier because many funders prefer to give money to a nonprofit, she said.

In the past, the Friends of the Library – now called the Friends Council – often handled fund raisers for the library. The group is now an extension of the foundation.

“It was a big wake up call for the community that the funding system for the library was so fragile,” said Gaisbauer. “The biggest challenge for us is making people understand what their tax dollars pay for. We have projected 450,000 people will be touched this year by the library and its programs.”

Library CEO Lee Keesler says he plans to be at all the community meetings arranged this year by the foundation, to talk about the library’s future and to answer questions.

The library needs to be prepared for future economic downturns, he said. Currently about 90 percent of the library budget comes from the county, which eventually restored part of the money it cut from the system.

“The economy will continue to cycle up and cycle down and there will be times when funders are challenged again,” Keesler said. “Hopefully, by diversifying our revenue sources and building an endowment, we’ll be better insulated when those cycles occur.”

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