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Durham Library Foundation Humanities Society

Durham County Library

Problem Statement

In 2005, the Durham Library Foundation received a $500,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. This challenge grant, along with $1.5 million raised through local fund-raising efforts, was used to begin a humanities endowment under the aegis of the Durham Library Foundation. In 2007, a humanities coordinator was hired and Durham County Library began planning and presenting numerous humanities programs.

Despite an impressive increase in attendance for humanities programs (for example, a 114% increase in from 2008 to 2009), we did not feel that we were getting to know the people who were attending. While we began to recognize faces of people who attended program after program, we didn’t have any formal way to find out what was driving their attendance, to get to know them better, to communicate directly with them, or to cultivate them as potential donors. We needed a concerted and manageable method of tracking attendance and getting valuable contact information.


In late 2009, the humanities coordinator and the Foundation’s development officer began to discussion the possibility of creating a special “frequent attenders” group. The goal of this initiative would be to incentivize group members not only to share their interests and contact information, but also to encourage them to attend more programs. Based on these discussions, we launched the Durham Library Foundation Humanities Society in January of this year. The Society, which is free to join, works like this: library customers fill out a form with their contact information and check off which humanities subjects interest them the most. They then receive a membership card and member number. At every humanities society event, a volunteer or staff member punches their card and records their attendance. Society members who attend six programs in a calendar year are entitled to special events, invitation-only receptions and other benefits.


One of the management philosophies of Durham County Library is to “plan less, prototype more,” so we decided to launch the initiative and see how people responded. Somewhat to our surprise, the Humanities Society has been a tremendous hit with program attendees and, after just three months, we already have 186 members. Members proudly present their cards when they enter events, and if they forget their card, they make sure that a staff member or volunteer “gives them credit” for attending. Because of the popularity of the Humanities Society, we have decided to accelerate the benefits of membership, and will be having our first invitation-only event at a local restaurant in May for members who have attended three or more events since January. As of April 1, more than thirty people are eligible, including one member who has attended eight events so far this year!

Some of the benefits are tangible. Along with our website, email lists, press releases, etc., the Society is another tool in our marketing toolbox, allowing us to ensure that this highly motivated group knows about programs. Of the 186 members, only about fifty of them were already in the donor database, allowing us to add invested library customers into our database for future mailings and solicitations. Some are intangible – the membership drive has helped us to brand our humanities programs as something special and worth becoming a “member” for. Members seem to enjoy the experience of interacting one-on-one with a staff person or volunteer, which helps strengthen our relationship with them. We’ve begun to be able to greet many members by name, which makes people feel special and acknowledged.