How to hit up your friends for $15 million

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July 7, 2003 // UPDATED 10:57 am - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

The new $125 million Downtown library depends on private fundraising. Meet two people willing to ask for the cash.

The fundraisers for Downtown's new Central Library have attracted approximately $5 million for the project...and only $10 million to go. A daunting task, yes. But to listen to those raising the money, the chore doesn't sound unpleasant.

Maybe it's the way fundraising is performed for such a high-profile project. Those involved aren't exactly rattling a tin cup. Instead, they are crafting the library's story and telling it to wealthy friends and corporations. And it helps that those involved with the fundraising are passionate, well-connected and powerful players in Minneapolis' funding community.

"You have to be careful in asking your friends for money. You have to know their interests," said Penny Winton, whose name, along with her husband's, can be found on donor lists throughout Minneapolis. "I never felt comfortable having friends support a project that won't give them pleasure. You have to know it will give them pleasure."

According to library campaign manager and consultant Randi Yoder, these players are essential to the library's $15 million capital campaign, not only because they donate money, but because they attract other donors.

"We go to these women and men and say we'd really like to have an opportunity to speak with person X, can you arrange that? Often people who are asked for gifts want to be asked by their friends," Yoder said. "We need them to identify other people, host events for us and make gifts themselves."

One obstacle to raising funds for the library is that the library has never had to raise so much money before.

Said Yoder, "Because the library is so well funded, they haven't had to do a lot of fundraising the way other institutions would. We had to find out who loves the library."

Those with the golden touch -- or Rolodex -- are critical to the $125 million library project. The private $15 million will pay for technology upgrades, and Yoder says without it, the library will not be finished -- literally. Some of the money will improve the building's actual finishing to make it more durable.

"The last time the city and library built a library, they fell short by a million dollars," she said. "When that library opened it didn't work the way it was supposed to work. It never worked the way it was supposed to work. We can't have that happen again. That's why the $15 million is so critical."

Not crazy

"It is so much fun to give money away."

No, these aren't the words of a crazy person. These are the words of Penny Winton -- a seasoned fundraiser who speaks ardently about the Central Library from her Downtown loft overlooking the Stone Arch Bridge.

"It baffles me that there are people who aren't passionate about the library. I think the city would discover that the quality of life would be diminished if we didn't have the Central Library," Winton said. "Some people don't have the means to experience cultural aspects of the world, except through the library."

Winton is involved with the new library fundraising mainly as a counselor. She cannot directly ask people for money, as she was already committed to a fundraising campaign for the Weisman Art Museum. However, she can give the actual fundraisers advice. And simply having her name attached to the project can attract other donors.

Winton understands what's in a name. "My husband and I have never asked to be anonymous donors," she said. "There's always a question in my mind about the value of modesty. If people see someone's name on a project, maybe they'll think it's worth their attention."

Winton has worked on projects for the Harriet Tubman Center, the Weisman, and has founded Pathways, a center for people with terminal illness. When she recently stepped down from the Harriet Tubman Center's board of directors, she decided to get involved with the Friends of the Library.

"After working so hard on the Harriet Tubman board, I thought the library sounded like such a charming project. I thought it would be easy," she said. "Then we had the fund cut [by the state for local government aid]."

Hitting up friends

Arvonne Fraser is another well-known Minneapolis name. Married to former mayor Don Fraser, she is president of the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library. The Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library is a nonprofit organization that supports the library through fundraising initiatives, the Friends Book Store and educational programs.

Fraser remembers the first thing she did when she moved to Minneapolis as a self-proclaimed "farm girl" from southwestern Minnesota.

"I went and got a library card at the very old library that was on 10th and Hennepin," Fraser said. "I used to take all my kids to the library with a big box and we'd take out books. A lot of young mothers use the library as a place to go for peace and quiet - with or without kids."

Many years after signing up for her first Minneapolis library card, Fraser finds herself not only asking corporations for donations, but also her friends.

"It's not too hard to ask friends [for money]," Fraser said. "If you really believe strongly in something, and you know what you want, you can go out and raise the money."

When raising money from her friends, Winton says the process is somewhat organic. From everyday conversation, she knows which projects her friends are interested in and whom to ask for donations. "There's an enormous amount of talk socially. [Fundraising] is just what we talk about," Winton said. "A lot of fundraising is a kind of banding together."

According to Winton, some philanthropists are easier to raise money from than others. "Some people in town are so wonderful to raise money from," she said. "They listen closely to what you have to say, and they ask really tough questions. Within a week, they have called you with their decision and have a check written out."

Optimism -- to a point

According to Yoder, the response from potential donors has been mainly positive. "We haven't had a lot of turndowns yet," Yoder said.

She said donors are "aware of libraries and the role libraries play in community today. They value literacy. They know educated persons make educated decisions for our community. They know you can't have a great city without a good central library."

Yoder said those who refuse to give aren't aware of the library's importance. "They aren't aware that 75 percent of the population uses this library on a regular and frequent basis. Some people aren't aware that 60 percent of people who come in to use computers in the library don't have access to technology elsewhere."

She also said some donors have very specific giving priorities and the library does not fit into those priorities. Others are already committed financially to other projects. Still others do not believe in funding a project that has so much public funding. "They're sort of reluctant when we first talk to them," she said.

Fraser and Winton say that fundraising today is dramatically different (and harder) than what it was even 10 years ago.

"When I was younger, all the major corporations in Minnesota were governed by Minnesota citizens. They grew up here and they created businesses here. Minneapolis was one of the most philanthropic cities in the nation," Winton said. "That has changed because corporations here are not run from here anymore. Now the gifts are harder to get, and they're smaller."

Both say the older generations of Minneapolitans have traditionally been very generous.

Fraser said, "The baby boomer generation aren't as good contributors as their mothers and fathers were. They grew up in affluence and don't understand. The rest of us grew up in the Depression. We understand."

Said Winton, "There is a group of people who have been here for generations and are very generous. Other wealthy people have just moved here and are not philanthropic yet."

All involved are hopeful that they will be able to meet their fundraising goals - but they sound hesitant.

"It's possible that we didn't start fundraising early enough," Fraser said. "Maybe we should have started the minute the referendum was passed in 2000. We didn't start fundraising then because the plans for the library weren't done. We didn't have a model. We didn't have anything to show people."

Said Winton, "We will meet our goal, but it is stressful on this timetable."