St. Paul’s Libraries Have Long Benefited from Their Friends

From the Pioneer Press, by Maja Beckstrom, January 29, 2016

Peter Pearson can sell almost anyone on the library.

He speaks with affability, an ease born of more than 20 years’ practice and the conviction that what he’s selling is worth every $1 million donation.

PDP-quoteHere’s the pitch that opened checkbooks to help fund recent renovations to downtown St. Paul’s George Latimer Central Library, which reopens Saturday after more than three months of work.

“What I say to people, is that if you want to support a specific age group, ethnicity or gender, there are lots of organizations that do that across the Twin Cities,” said Pearson, longtime president of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library. “But public libraries serve everybody. Every age, every ethnicity, every socioeconomic group. There is nobody who isn’t touched by a public library. If you think about your philanthropy, what other institution could give you such a huge impact on the community?”

It’s fair to say that without The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, our city libraries would be less wired, less bustling with kids after school, and possibly closed on Sundays.

The Friends is the nonprofit organization that raises extra money for the city’s tax-funded library system. It secures about $1 million every year in private money for the library to run programs such as summer reading activities, homework hubs and preschool storytimes in Hmong and six other languages. It raises millions for remodeling projects, like the overhaul at Central and, just over a year ago, major work at the Highland Park and Sun Ray Libraries.

Beyond acting as the library’s development arm, The Friends organizes cultural and literary events such as author visits and the Minnesota Book Awards. It lobbies for public funding. Over the past two decades, it has evolved into a sophisticated organization with the equivalent of 15 full-time employees and annual expenses of nearly $3 million above what it gives to the library.

“The Friends of theLibrary is irreplaceable and a key partner in everything we do with our libraries,” said St. Paul City Council member and library board chair Chris Tolbert.


The Friends’ effectiveness hasn’t gone unnoticed. When national library groups are asked which Friends organization comes to mind first, it’s “Saint Paul,” said Sally Gardner Reed, executive director of United for Libraries, the national association of library trustees, advocates, friends and foundations. “They’re quite well-known across the country. They raise a lot of money and get a high profile for their library, so people look to them for inspiration. Others groups aspire to be as good as The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library.”

In 2007, the nonprofit launched a consulting arm, Library Strategies. It shares its expertise in fundraising, advocacy and outreach with more than 100 libraries, in communities ranging from White Plains, N.Y., to Tulsa, Okla. In 2014, Library Strategies billed $1.14 million and provided $200,000 of revenue for the Friends.

“Basically, libraries and library organizations were coming to the Friends and saying, ‘Help us be as successful as you are,’” said Library Strategies’ Director Sue Hall.


The Friends of the St. Paul Public Library got a strong start. It was created in 1945 by St. Paul library director Perrie Jones, who also left a half-million dollars in her will for the continuing education of librarians.

Like other library booster groups in the mid-20th century, the Friends initially was a volunteer group of older, white women who raised money through used book sales. They also delivered books to people who could not leave home, including a Myrtle Briggs, the ailing wife of a prominent St. Paul physician. After she died, her husband, John Briggs, changed his will and, at his death six months later in 1973, left the Friends $1.8 million.

“He was so appreciative of what these ladies had done,” said Pearson. “He said it was her only comfort in her final years.”

The money grew under the management of the St. Paul Foundation until Pearson was hired as the Friends’ first director in 1992, and a couple of years later began running it as a freestanding organization. Pearson had been a teacher, had been principal of a Catholic school and headed a couple of nonprofit organizations that addressed adult literacy and learning disabilities. But he found his calling in fundraising.

“If there’s a cause you care about, there’s nothing more rewarding than raising money for it,” Pearson said. “To me there’s no better way to make living. I loved it right from the start.”


Under Pearson’s leadership, the Friends’ endowment has grown to about $14 million. Friends of the Hennepin County Library, which supports libraries in Hennepin County and Minneapolis with annual grants of about $800,000, has an endowment of about $1.2 million. Jane Eastwood, who just took over as St. Paul library director, calls the St. Paul group “a powerhouse.”

“I think the way the Friends have been able to engage community leaders in the leadership of the library has made the difference,” said former St. Paul Library Director Kit Hadley, who stepped down in October. She previously headed the public library in Minneapolis.

“One challenge in Minneapolis was that the business community was not engaged and they didn’t think the library was important. And you just didn’t have that in St. Paul.”

St. Paul Friends raised $6 million, or more than a quarter of the money for the major Central Library remodel that was completed in 2002. Its second capital campaign, which just wrapped up, raised $7.4 million, covering half the cost of remodeling the Sun Ray and Highland Park branches, and nearly all the cost of recent renovations at Central Library.


Fundraising for the recent projects was a challenge, Pearson said. Individuals were uncertain following the recession and gave only 10 percent of the private money raised, as opposed to 30 percent a dozen years ago. About 90 percent of the money came from 30 corporate, family and community foundations, including Otto Bremer Trust, McKnight Foundation, The St. Paul Foundation, Ecolab Foundation and many more.

The largest gift was $1 million from 3M.

“It came about, like most fundraising, through relationships,” said Pearson, who credits the organization’s large board of 50 people with making connections.

“One of our board members is a woman named Debra Mitts-Smith. Her husband is Marschall Smith. He was chief legal counsel at 3M, and that’s how the door opened initially. The first thing Marsh did was arrange for (former St. Paul Mayor) George Latimer to be at a gala sitting next to George Buckley (then 3M’s CEO). He wanted them to meet each other.”

Latimer recalled that they talked about Buckley’s impoverished childhood in England and how he left it behind, in part thanks to a love of books. Current Mayor Chris Coleman followed up with a phone call to Buckley, and 3M ended up contributing $1 million.

“It was really an easy sell,” said Latimer, with a laugh. “The Friends have got it made because there are so many people in St. Paul who love libraries.”

The Friends don’t just ask for donations, they also lobby for tax money. More than 90 percent of library funding comes from city property taxes. Political advocacy has been part of the group’s mission since its founding, which sets St. Paul Friends apart from many groups, said Gardner Reed, with United for Libraries.

In 2015, the Friends asked the city to allocate an additional half-million to the library. The city ended up adding $100,000 to start digitizing collections.

“The Friends are highly respected and their opinion really matters,” said Tolbert, the city councilman. “There is no other group that backs up their advocacy like they do, with their own dollars.”


Maja Beckstrom covers nonprofit organizations for the Pioneer Press. She’s won awards, including a Premack for her year-long series about a grandmother and four children struggling through the aftermath of a domestic violence homicide. She has also swung on a trapeze in the name of journalism. Featured image of Peter Pearson by Jean Pieri.

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