Library-Nonprofit Partnership Finds Opportunity in Scarcity

Hayward, California
Sean Reinhart

How does a librarian end up running a city's community grant programs? Budget cuts. And a firm belief that service to the community unites libraries, nonprofits, and other community organizations. 

In 2009, the city of Hayward (CA) chose to combine its public library and parts of its community services program into a single department in response to a budget crisis. Sean Reinhart heads up the merged Library and Community Services department.

Seeing Libraries in a Different Light

Sean Reinhart didn't know much about nonprofits or about disbursing grants when he became head of the joint department. But he learned.

This was a huge challenge, he admits, but also an opportunity to learn new ways of thinking about the library's role in the community. As he says,

In libraries, you spend 90% of your time with people who come into the library. Or with other librarians, or at library events. Everyone just automatically assumes the library is essential. It's a slam-dunk talking to those folks. Outside of that world, it's not just assumed, and the value of libraries is different.

For libraries to succeed and remain relevant, Reinhart says, library advocates must be able to explain the value of libraries in terms that align with other groups' priorities. For example:

  • Hayward's educational system is facing many challenges. Therefore, for many elected officials, the education component of the library is the highest priority. As Reinhart says, "A traditional library is good, of course, but a place for kids to go after school and get academic support? THAT is the slam-dunk."
  • For those whose priority is public safety, the library's role in promoting literacy, its impact on decreasing criminal activity, and the library as a safe place for kids to go is what resonates.

In Hayward, education and public safety were two key ways to talk about the library's role. The needs might be different in another community. The challenge is identifying what those needs are and how the library can help meet it.

Identifying a Need

Another need Reinhart identified is better serving Hayward's nonprofits.

One of the many things Reinhart's department does is to administer and disburse grants to local nonprofits. There are over 2000 nonprofit organizations in Hayward. And as Reinhart says, these organizations vary from "real powerhouse operations" to smaller nonprofits with "a lot of passion that can really accomplish things at the program level, but might be less robust on the financial capacity and planning side."

Given the tightening funding situation in Hayward, his department needed to prioritize funding programs that were financially sustainable and having a demonstrable impact. However, he found that some Hayward nonprofits were struggling with basic financial planning, auditing, and reporting. This was endangering their eligibility for the grants his department administers, and might be preventing them from securing grants from other sources as well.

Being Part of the Solution

What's a librarian to do in this situation? Develop a nonprofit training program and resource center, of course.

Reinhart says he recognizes that nonprofits have a passion for serving their communities, and he believes the library's role is to support them in doing that as effectively as possible. The goal of his program is to help Hayward nonprofits become more financially sustainable. There are several components to his plan:

  • Two six-month training programs for Hayward nonprofits, one through the Foundation Center for nonprofit Executive Directors and senior staff and one through CompassPoint for nonprofit board members.
  • One-on-one support from library staff for nonprofit grant research and grant writing. Library staff will receive training from the Foundation Center, and Foundation Center resources will be available to Hayward nonprofits. The Hayward library is in the process of becoming a cooperating collection for access to the Foundation Center's considerable collection.
  • Small, short-term loans to cover the initial costs of fundraising efforts.

The training program will launch in January and continue through early summer. To learn more, check out Hayward's Library and Community Services page (additional information coming soon), or you can contact Sean Reinhart directly.

Finding Opportunity in Scarcity

I often hear comments about the bleak future of libraries, given technology developments, new ways of accessing information, changing community priorities, and scarce funding. In fact, I first saw Sean Reinhart speak at the Future of Libraries conference in October, where this year's theme was "Navigating Scarcity."

Scarcity prompted the merger of library and community services in Hayward. But it also provided opportunities to:

  • Better understand how other stakeholders see the value of libraries.
  • Understand that there's a "strong philosophical alignment" between libraries and nonprofits. As Reinhart says, "We're both in this to help others and meet their needs."
  • Identify needs in the nonprofit community.
  • Find ways the library could help meet that need through education and access to resources.

His role is not what you think of as a traditional librarian's role. But Sean attests,

The library's role is education. And everyone will agree that education is a fundamental value, a cornerstone of our society. No matter what transformations occur in libraries, a focus on education still makes sense and remains aligned with the tradition of libraries.

When you look at it that way, the future of libraries doesn't seem bleak at all.