What Makes a Good Friends Group?


Over the years since Library Strategies was created, we’ve worked with dozens of Friends groups across the country. Some were led by board members who’d been serving as volunteers for as many as thirty years and were praying for a way out, but were too committed to just leave. Other Friends groups have a kick-butt board of energetic volunteers who are creative at finding great ways to support their library. So, what makes one group more successful than the other?

We have found that successful Friends groups usually have most of the following traits:

Clear Mission – Each Friends group needs a clearly defined mission. For some, this is fundraising only and for others it’s fundraising and advocacy (conducting grassroots activities to secure public funding for their library is a perfect activity for a Friends group to engage in). For many other Friends groups, it’s providing incredibly valuable resources to their library in the form of dedicated volunteers who help with an array of library tasks. Too often, however, Friends groups exist without either having a clear mission or failing to revisit and renew their commitment to their mission.

Defined Roles – The difference between your mission and your role is that one (the mission) tells the world what you do while the other states how you’re going to deliver on your mission (what activities you’re going to engage in to support your library). Knowing your role as a library support organization is important, especially if your library also has a foundation. It’s critical that each of these organizations understands its unique role and where the intersection, or collaboration, is between Friends and foundation. Too often we see support organizations getting in the way of each other’s success because they have note clearly defined and communicated their roles.

Board Responsibilities – Your Friends board should have a structure that supports the mission. This ensures that it’s not the same people who do all the work all the time. If you do book sales and an author luncheon, for example, have two committees coordinating these events. You can have both Board members and individuals from the community at-large staffing your committees.

Term Limits – Any organization that has the same board leadership year after year is sending the message that it either can’t recruit new members or that it’s an organization that doesn’t embrace change. Taking on new board members allows for new ideas, perspectives, and knowledge. If you want your Friends group to stay fresh, you need to keep your board fresh as well.

Board Recruitment – You won’t get new board members if you don’t have an annual plan for identifying and recruiting them. This can be done in a brainstorming session of the full board or by a Nominating Committee whose role is to ensure the ongoing growth of the board. Take the time (and spend a little money) to put together a nice one-page recruiting tool that highlights the benefits of being a Friends board member.

Board Diversity – Recruit diverse board members with different skills, attributes and connections. This ensures that your Board will generate new ideas and opportunities.

Adapt and Change – One reason that Friends organizations tend to grow stale, or disband, is that members get bored doing the same thing year after year. If your Friends group runs a book sale or a book shop – great! – but find new activities to add to your agenda that will attract new and diverse board members and retain your veteran members.

Take Time – to think and plan. If your board is stalled out, do a retreat and look at who you are and how you work. Ask what’s working and what’s not – and then make a plan. Even if your Friends board is working well, take time out on a regular basis to talk about your organization and plan for the future.

Thank Yourselves – Finally, take time to celebrate. Individuals volunteer their time to give back, but it’s also a social experience. Do the occasional happy hour after a meeting, plan a potluck, do an annual dinner… just to thank your members for sharing their time and talent with your Friends.