Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Can local philanthropy work?

Libraries are not income generating. I remember as a child thinking that money generated by late fines were what sustained my local library. The idea amazed me and for good reason—ensuring library use is truly public means that there’s no way that fees from users can sustain the library. Any publicly funded enterprise requires a tricky balance between sustainability and access. This has been something we have come up against time and time again when trying to figure out a sustainability plan. Of course, public funding and attaching something to the library plot like an office complex or a row of shops can go a long way to fund the library’s activities. But for it to truly be able to grow, we suspect that the library services in Kenya can take a page out of the book of library networks in other parts of the world: they need a philanthropic network. Of course, in essence Maria’s Libraries is a philanthropic network, funneling international funding into these projects. But does Kenya really have to rely solely on the notoriously fickle flow of funding from abroad? Is it possible to raise funds locally?

We think that a philanthropic network is possible in Kenya. A sustained effort at funding an ongoing project might be a bit foreign to Kenya outside its churches, but there certainly is a tradition for raising money. Usually, fundraisers are organized in parties called Harambe. People pledge money to help an individual put up a house, help a church buy a motorbike, send a child to school in Kenya or even in America, and quite often to pay for funerals. What we are trying to do is somewhat different—we want funds to build the library, but we also want people to consider contributing every year to help sustain the library. This is not a one-off enterprise, it requires a commitment for as long as the library is in existence.

So we’re going to try it. We have several plans. First, we are having a Harambe on April 3 in Busia. Maria and co are asking Busia-ites to buy bricks (which go for 10 Kenyan shillings, or about 14 cents each) for the building and to bring books to the Harambe to donate to the library. They’re asking individuals but we’re also approaching small self-help and micro finance groups that may have trouble contributing individually but as a group can make a contribution. Second, we’re going to do something similar in Nairobi, organized by the Friends of the Busia Community Library in Nairobi, a group of professionals who live in Nairobi but are from Busia. Finally, we hope to get the Kenyan diaspora involved if we can.

I do sometimes wonder if there are ethical issues involved here. Busia is a poor community—according to government statistics, 65% of the population is in absolute poverty, defined as less than a dollar a day. Do we really need their money? I have trouble with projects that require a certain amount of labor from the local community to “prove” their commitment and create a sense of ownership over the project. I don’t feel the community has anything to prove—the support from Kenyans all over the country has been overwhelming. I know they want libraries, especially in Busia where dozens of people attend our planning meetings, the local politicians make speeches on our behalf, and a team of volunteers had kept the library open with regular hours for 7 months and counting with no renumeration. I do agree that a sense of ownership over the library will make people value it more, and I hope they honestly feel it’s their library (the slogan for our fundraiser in Busia is: It’s your Library!). But actually, we probably could raise the money entirely outside the country with less difficulty than a fundraiser here is causing us. And, although there are relatively wealthy people in Busia, for the most part the donors in America would feel it much less than here.

But we hope that people get used to donating to the library. Of course they understand that funding needs to come from somewhere, but we hope that they connect it to themselves. And who knows, maybe we will raise a truly significant amount of money for the library. Watch this space, will report back!

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