Much ink has been spilled about the challenges facing start-up companies, but much less, I suspect, about the up-hill battle facing start-up nonprofits.
My community members and I got first-hand experience of these difficulties when we banded together to reopen our community’s libraries, which had been closed in 2007 due to lack of funding (leaving 82,000 Oregonians without any access to libraries whatsoever).
The libraries closed in May 2007, and by September 2007, Josephine Community Libraries, Inc. (JCLI) was born.
There were practical matters: where could we find space to meet? Would there be enough chairs? Did everyone have a working computer and e-mail address? There were financial matters—I remember vividly one of our founders literally “passing the hat,” sending his baseball cap around the room to collect money for copying costs. There was the question of expertise in organization-building, communications, and—most importantly—how to actually run a library.But perhaps the most pressing issue of all, one that affected the whole enterprise, was credibility. Our community was (rightly) wary of us, a group of folks—just like themselves—who proposed to reopen and operate the libraries with donations and volunteers until a long-term solution could be found. We knew we had to prove ourselves to be fiscally prudent, transparent, and flexible, and we did so the only way we knew how—by working hard and being responsible and responsive over the long-term.
A huge breakthrough came for JCLI when we received a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust in 2011 to rebuild our collection, which had been decimated by years of dwindling budgets and closure. Receiving a grant from such a well-respected organization, recognition at the statewide level that we were partners in the shared goal of supporting Oregon culture by promoting literacy and access to knowledge and the arts, was a huge boon.
We took full advantage of this grant, not only by spending it prudently but by publicizing it widely. We wanted everyone in our community to be able to share in the pride of knowing that Josephine County had been recognized as a placed that loved its libraries so much, its citizens fought like hell to keep them.And that’s why we were so thrilled to be included in a video the Oregon Cultural Trust funded and Sheepscot Creative produced to highlight the incredible work the Trust is doing around the state.
I’ll never forget being in the audience as the video was unveiled at a reception of the Josephine County Cultural Coalition. People gasped as they realized one of their own had been included in this statewide video, and there was much applause at the end. It was then that I realized JCLI had done it—we had credibility. We had the respect of our patrons, our incredible volunteers, and the leaders of the community.
JCLI still has a long way to go.
Our donations cannot keep pace with the costs of running a 21st-century library, and a political action committee has formed to put a library district on the ballot so that we can have long-term, sustainable funding for our libraries.When that day comes, when the library is fiscally secure and continuing to provide vital services to our community, linking us to our neighbors and to knowledge, education, and culture, we will know it’s in large part thanks to the role the Oregon Cultural Trust played at such a critical juncture. And we will be so, so grateful.
-Jen Sherman Roberts, Co-Founder, Head of Communications, Josephine Community Libraries Inc.
Editor’s Note: JCLI received Trust grants in 2012 and 2013 for augmentation of their collections, including Spanish language titles and books for English Language Learners.