The Little Foundation That Books Built
The Milwaukee Public Library Foundation raises dollars to support the city library system.
It’s Ryan Daniels‘ job to change that equation: to make sure more of us know about the foundation, in hopes we might then have generous thoughts about it. The foundation, you see, has been raising supplementary dollars for the city’s public library system since 1988. In the five year period from 2009-2013, according to the foundation’s annual tax form, it raised about $1.1 million per year for the library.
Daniels, who was appointed the foundation’s executive director in late 2013, has hopes of greatly increasing the level of donations, and seems to be off to a good start. Since 2014, he says, the foundation has increased overall donations by 47 percent and increased the number of new donors by 61 percent.
Daniels, originally from Paramus, New Jersey, attended SUNY Binghamton in upstate New York. While he was studying abroad in London his family moved to Milwaukee. He graduated early, with a degree in literature and moved to Milwaukee with his family to look for a job. He got a job with M&I Bank, where he worked for 8 years, beginning as a management trainee and later working in the corporate secretary’s office, where he quickly realized he’d need a business background. He attended night classes at Marquette University, where he earned his MBA, and became the Assistant Secretary & Manager of Shareholder Services and M & I.
He forged a relationship with Dennis Kuester, the CEO of M&I, who also served as volunteer leader of the United Way campaign. Kuester’s philanthropic approach helped Daniels think about fundraising in a new way; that it’s really not about receiving from people, but about giving them an opportunity.
“That’s how I view fundraising,” Daniels says. “It’s really an opportunity to share with people, a chance to give.”
From there, he became a loaned executive at United Way and helped develop a partnership between United Way and the Boys & Girls club. After becoming a Corporate Relations Director for MGIC, he returned to United Way for three years where he was the Vice President of Campaigns. He then consulted for other United Ways around the country.
“Part of a being a good fundraiser is finding those volunteers and helping them finds ways they can make an impact in a way that helps them feel good.”
He carried this mentality when he was recruited to help the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design build a donor program. After five years under Daniels’ direction, yearly donations to MIAD more than doubled.
Now he’s moved on to the Library Foundation. Daniels says that if he had to pick one thing he likes best about the job, it would be “the look of delight when [kids] first walk into the children’s section.”
The Milwaukee Public Library dates to 1878 when the State Legislature authorized the city to establish one. But the library can actually trace its lineage back further, to 1847 and the organization of the Young Men’s Association, a subscription library which collected dues from its members. Today, the city allocates roughly $22 million annually to fund the Library System.
The Foundation is a small, but mighty team of four people serving a very large system, with a main downtown library and 13 other branch locations. Their goal is to raise additional money for books, materials, programs, and library facilities. Says Daniels: “We always look to the library and at their strategic plan and say ‘how can we help them execute that? How can we provide resources to really…do those new programs beyond the walls of the library?’”
For Daniels, the best part of the job is helping give the gift of literacy and creating life-long learners. And that involves “making sure people recognize that…things have changed, times have changed, and so have libraries. And so has this library in terms of positioning itself for the future. And the foundation plays a large role in that.”
The Milwaukee Public Library has made efforts to remain up-to-date. There is now an app that allows members to check out books from the comfort of their own home and to pick it up at their convenience; there’s even a drive-thru service. Members can also download books, movies, or music to their phones from the app.
But interacting with library staff in person can be a great experience, Daniels stresses. “One of the jewels that people don’t recognize is our staff. We have absolutely amazing librarians.” They are quite knowledgable, as visitors quickly learn. “And they’re always looking for new ways to serve the public,” Daniels says.
Part of the library’s staff are volunteers. That’s true of the foundation as well. “I love working with my volunteers,” Daniels says. “There are very few professions where you’re able to work with community leaders on a certain level that really get it and have vision… They’re so smart and always have new things you can learn and new suggestions.”
Daniels wants people to think of a library of as a safe place where people can come between work or school, sit down, relax, and enjoy the gift of reading. The library isn’t always the same thing for everyone, he stresses. For example, his 12 year old daughter has grown up in the digital age surrounded by touch screens. “But when I ask her, she much prefers paper to digital,” Daniels says. “When we ask patrons, [they] don’t say, ‘I want one or the other,’ they say, ‘I want both.’”
The foundation provides considerable funding for programs like Summer Reading, and Books2Go. These programs focus on continuing education for children both throughout the summer and the school year. Books2Go is a program where librarians go into daycares and read to children to establish those vital, early literacy skills as well as coaching their caretakers to continue those services.
“The more investment that we make in creating life-long learners now, the more of an impact it’s going to have on our community,” Daniels notes.
Children can use library resources to help them with their homework. The Library uses a database called BrainFuse, which provides online tutoring for students in a variety of topics.
Daniels says that it’s critical to draw teens to the library. The Foundation’s 21st Century Literacy plan includes plenty of teen-friendly technology that is not only fun, but also educational.
The Foundation has a plan in place called the MPL 2020: Our Plan for the Future. By 2020, the goal is that 100 percent of school age children will be MPL cardholders, 50 percent of Milwaukee children will participate in MPL literacy programs, and MPL will use its branches to increase the use of digital resources to 45 percent of the population.
The Foundation describes the MPL 2020 plan as “a customer-driven plan that provides strategic, relevant and forward-looking library services going beyond the books” and developed “through extensive analysis of data and community input.”
Daniels says that one of the reasons he chose to come to the library was because of this plan. “The library has been so creative in what the future looks like that I believe this will have a large community impact.”
Research is an important part of what librarians do, and critical for Daniels, too: he emphasizes that research is essential to finding new donors. “It’s very important for us to grow our donor-base. Any gift of any size is meaningful to us. The more people that can give, the more impact we’ll have collectively,”
When the library built the new East Branch on North Ave., they discovered many supporters and people who wanted to be donors, Daniels says.
And there is much more of that to come.“We’re going through a branch re-building initiative right now,” he notes. “The city has set aside $20 million to help re-build five new branches by 2020…all of our branches will have been re-tooled to 21st century libraries.”
Daniels predicts that all people in the city will want to be a part of this new branch plan. “If you don’t have a new branch or a newly-remodeled branch, you will.”