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From “Popular” Service to Educational Partner

Charlotte Meckleburg Library

Innovation Summary

Library positioned itself as educational partner alongside Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and Central Piedmont Community College, aligning with County priorities of literacy, high school graduation rate and workforce development. As a result, Library was moved up one level in budget priorities and granted $2 million additional County funding to expand hours.

Innovation Leader: Cordelia Anderson, Director of Marketing & Communications, canderson@cmlibrary.org

Problem Statement

In February 2010, the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners placed the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library at a Level 4 funding priority, down one level from previous years. Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, a mandated service, were at Level 1; and Central Piedmont Community College was at Level 3. Then in April, the County Manager recommended a 50% funding cut to the Library in FY11. In doing so, he noted that library services were “popular,” but discretionary. The Library was more frequently compared with Parks & Recreation than its educational peers. The Manager was right – we were popular, as evidenced by our high programming attendance and door count. But we were not viewed as critical to the educational infrastructure of our community. The Library should be part of the “three-legged stool” of education, along with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and Central Piedmont Community College. But we weren’t. Our program descriptions were written to attract an audience, but did not highlight the educational value. We had partnerships with educational institutions, but those were given equal weight with other partnerships. We were not aware of our primary funder’s critical success factors. Our performance measures were not comparable to what educational institutions could provide. As we faced drastic funding cuts, we wanted to tell our story as an educational institution, but didn’t have the facts, data or positioning to back that up. By early 2011, we were at a crossroads. We had reduced hours by half, lost a third of our workforce, and were about to receive the report of the Future of the Library Task Force. We knew we belonged at a higher priority level with our educational peers, and that it would take a strong, focused communication effort. We would need to change how we spoke about ourselves in order to change how others viewed us.

Innovation

In January 2011, Library Marketing & Communications began rolling out a Communications Plan with three audience groups: internal, external and funding stakeholder. Upon sharing this with staff, we immediately recognized that the concept of three audiences was very new. In discussion with staff, we identified that they felt caught in the middle between the external audience (customers), who wanted broader and more diverse services; and the funding stakeholder (County/Task Force), who wanted us to focus and provide measurable results. That was our turning point. By understanding and acknowledging the tension between the audiences, we could help staff understand what good communications could do for them: manage the expectations of the external audience, while communicating our value to the funding stakeholder. Making staff part of the solution enabled us to implement some strategies very quickly and effectively. Prior to the budget crisis, we had done some work to position the Library as an educational institution – for example, using the term “classes” instead of “programs.” However, it took an understanding of the audiences and an aggressive alignment with community priorities to truly make it work. Whereas in the past, our marketing and public relations efforts had been geared toward the external audience, we now factored in the funding stakeholder. Every message had to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” for the funding stakeholder. The County had identified its Critical Success Factors for the year, and we began aligning our efforts with the three that were the best fit: literacy, high school graduation rate and workforce development. Before we would promote a program, service or partnership, we made sure it was aligned with those priorities and that the messaging highlighted the educational value. And, when possible, we would report back on measurable results after the program, service or partnership was complete.

Progress

The most noticeable result of the Library positioning itself as the third leg in the educational stool was the fact that a year later, the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners moved the Library back to a level 3 funding priority. This, combined with the recommendations of the Future of the Library Task Force, led to the County giving the Library $2 million in additional funding to expand hours at our regional branches in FY12. As this positioning has become part of our identity, we have seen longer-term outcomes. A July 2011 Op Ed piece about summer reading loss prompted a response co-authored by the Library CEO and the School Board Chair about the importance of Summer Reading. As we approach another summer, we have already planned several more co-authored Op Ed pieces. In September 2011, school employees for the first time chose the Library as one of three beneficiaries of their annual employee giving campaign. In a November 2011 letter to his peers, County Commissioner Harold Cogdell listed the Library as one of three educational partners alongside Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and Central Piedmont Community College – essentially naming the three legs of the stool. The Library knows that this is not a short-term solution to funding challenges, but a long-term strategy to align ourselves with the needs of our community. With our daily efforts, our Communications Plan, our performance measures, our Programming Plan, and our upcoming strategic planning process, we will need to keep education – and the priorities of our funding stakeholders – at the forefront of our thinking. In fact, the only new full-time positions we have proposed in FY13 are an early literacy coordinator and a liaison with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. It is not enough to say we are an educational partner; we have to be one as well.