Philanthropy: a mainstay of public libraries once more?

Banner for interview with The Wolfson Foundation's Paul Ramsbottom on philanthropy

The public library sector’s philanthropic connections appear to be long gone, but with new crises and opportunities at local and national levels are libraries savvy enough to identify and embrace them again? Rob Mackinlay talks to The Wolfson Foundation’s Paul Ramsbottom for some clues.

PHILANTHROPY is set to play a significant role in providing public libraries with income, as central government funding dwindles. It is one of the three main strands of income that government expects libraries to tap into: public funding, earned income and philanthropy. The 2016 Culture White Paper sets out the general direction: ‘The government believes there is scope for cultural organisations to benefit further from philanthropy and private donations’ but how easy will it really be for libraries to raise money through this route?

Paul Ramsbottom, Chief Executive of The Wolfson Foundation, overseeing the investment of about £30m a year in various UK institutions and projects, has been looking at how this might happen. He said: ‘Over the last three years, we’ve been quite keen to re-engage with the public library sector more broadly. We convened a roundtable with the Carnegie UK Trust about three years ago alongside conversations with other big funders to discuss the best way to engage with public libraries across the UK. We discovered, among other things, that it’s a very difficult question to answer.’


To put the potential of an organisation like Wolfson into perspective, during the 1990s and early 2000s it gave £2-£4m a year to UK public libraries through the Public Libraries Challenge Fund. This is not an insignificant sum when compared to central Government’s recent funding programmes: £2.6m for Wi-fi in public libraries and the £4m Libraries: Opportunities for Everyone Innovation fund.

Lost connection

The public library sector’s philanthropic connections appear to be long gone. ‘There was a sense that libraries would be funded by the public purse’ Paul said, and now ‘they don’t necessarily have the staff and skills for effective fundraising which is, in any case, rather difficult to do successfully’.

He said: ‘Somehow you have got to get the skillsets into public libraries that allow them to diversify income streams – whether it be philanthropy and fundraising, or sweating assets via corporate hire and other commercial activity.’

This change may prove difficult. ‘It is easy to talk about philanthropy, sitting in central London – and much more difficult when you’re on the front line. So we do have to think about a model of philanthropy that works across the country.’

Current project

Wolfson has its own ongoing projects in the sector. Much of this is focused on finding practice and tools that will be useful across all public libraries. ‘We are working with Manchester and Birmingham, funding branch libraries in the most deprived wards. This involves targeted intervention and trying to create an evaluation that shows that the right intervention in libraries can have an effect on literacy in young people.’ The evaluation work is being done in partnership with the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at the University of Durham. ‘The aim,’ according to Paul ‘is not just to tackle specific evaluation questions but also to help libraries think about how they can measure and describe the social impact that they are having – and how to present this effectively to funders. This is all about the social impact.’

State of crisis

A crude distinction between charity and philanthropy is that charity is supposed to ease the effects of immediate crises while philanthropy addresses the root causes. It means that institutions that are in crisis may have difficulty in attracting philanthropic help. Paul said: ‘It’s very difficult to present a case to funders without it looking like you’re asking them just to fill the gap that is left by retreating public funding.’ This probably won’t work because philanthropists tend to see their donations as long-term investments. He said libraries need to explain to philanthropists ‘why they should invest at a time when statutory funding is cutting back. And to give them a compelling reason to do it rather than plugging gaps’.

Fundamental problem

‘We fund capital infrastructure, which is of crucial importance in virtually all of the areas that we fund.’ Libraries are in many ways ‘the opposite to a real estate problem’ Paul said, adding: ‘I think the challenge for libraries is more fundamental.’ For most library services the need is for revenue, not one-off projects. Philanthropists are particularly wary of these situations: ‘Generally, if you’re funding a post for three to five years, it’s done with a view that at some point after that, it will be funded through a different source. And if you pull out you can become the bad guy and that’s a challenge too.’ Some of it is to do with the scale of the problem: ‘As a national funder, it’s quite ­difficult to fund something relatively ­generic for organisations with roots in every community across the UK. If, for example, you open a public library or a schools programme you get hundreds of organisations that can apply and so in our pilot programmes in Manchester and Birmingham we are looking more for a proof of concept. Really as a national funder you need to pick a ­specific theme or region and focus on that.’


There are some low hanging fruits for libraries. Paul said: ‘For some it’s a case of starting from scratch with easy first steps like a “would you like to donate” button on a home page and setting up Just Giving ­accounts for sponsored events.’ ­

However he was sceptical about crowdfunding, ­saying: ‘Very few organisations in the UK have mastered doing crowdfunding effectively. There are easier places to start.’

When it comes to approaching established philanthropic organisations, the important thing will be communication.

He said: ‘I think the opportunities for libraries are where they are doing a re-think of what they do in a savvy way. They can package these up and go to philanthropists and talk about the design, the vision and what they’re trying to achieve. Yes, this may be a response to an immediate financial change but it has the advantage of not looking like its filling a short term funding gap.’

He was also optimistic that libraries would be able to drum up support from local sources of philanthropy: ‘I’ve always thought public libraries were among the most obvious institutions to benefit from local and regional philanthropy. If you look to the national funders, what we’re likely to do is pilot projects or research because the problems are national in scale.’

The problems may be too much for national funders – but could be addressed in each area by local funders and businesses looking to support their local communities.


‘I suspect that local philanthropy will be the model in the future for public libraries’, he said, but warned that there were dangers, saying: ‘The downside for relying on regional sources is that you exacerbate the haves and the have-nots. It’s self-evident. I suspect it will be easier in communities where there is wealth and this is a challenge for national philanthropists: how do we make sure we’re not amplifying the divide?’

He acknowledged that good fundraising was a skill that came with a cost, adding: ‘When people talk about it in policy documents, they do forget how difficult it is to ramp up from a standing start. But I don’t want to sound too gloomy: it is challenging, not impossible.’

Update Magazine

This article was originally published in CILIP Update Magazine, March 2017.

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