Overcoming Barriers to Innovation

Posted June 22, 2016

By John Chrastka, Executive Director, EveryLibrary

EveryLibrary is the first and only national organization dedicated to building voter support for libraries. They are chartered “to promote public, school, and college libraries, including by advocating in support of public funding for libraries and building public awareness of public funding initiatives”. Their primary work is to support local public libraries when they have a referendum or measure on the ballot. John Chrastka, the Executive Director of EveryLibrary, encourages libraries with a few important tips on how to overcome the barriers to innovation they most often face.

If you are short on ideas, I can’t help you there. The rest of this issue of Impact is filled with brilliance and encouragement for innovation and ideation. I’d like to talk about a key barrier to ideation that stifles innovation: that feeling of “why bother” because there is no money. In libraries, our budgets are often stagnant. We may not allow ourselves to dream big because a city council or county government controls our budgets, or we don’t allow our teams to innovate because the voters won’t go for it. This is an emotional barrier as much as it is a resource barrier. If we don’t allow ourselves the emotional space to set up innovative teams in our libraries because they won’t go anywhere anyways…well, then they won’t.

The analogy of running a library like it is a business is inherently limited. We are not in the private sector. But we can take inspiration from businesses at all stages of growth when it comes to putting capital to work bringing new ideas, products, and services to market. Startups need “seed stage” or “angel funds.” Small businesses looking to grow seek “first round” venture capital. Established firms often have a research and development department that is funded internally or by issuing stock. Libraries may need to use words like funding or resources instead of venture capital, but the analogy of taking an idea to potential funders — angels, private equity, or the stock market — is valid. We have to understand that our sources of funding — foundations and grants, municipal budgets, or voter-approved tax measures — are similar capacity builders for library innovation.

The for-profit sector is allowed, encouraged, and incentivized to put venture capital to innovate because the reward is profit and the risk is a write-off. New ideas are allowed to grow and potentially fail in pursuit of innovation. In the venture capital space, new ideas — whether a new product, new service, or market segment — are encouraged to “fail fast” and “fail forward” on the path to success. Outside investors expect that failure is a step on the way to success instead of a full stop.

How Do We Get Funded Like A Startup?
If your friends group or library foundation has an investment policy (as it should), they need to look at the stability of their investments and the return those investments make to secure the future of the library. If their funds are sitting in a checking account or they are laddering certificates of deposit to bring a modest return, challenge them to directly invest in your project or idea. The classic return on investment calculation for a checking account or certificate of deposit is far less useful than putting funding to work for library outcomes.

How Do We Grow Like A Business Accelerator?
The accelerator stage of start-up growth assumes that if the business gets an infusion of cash, its market share will rapidly grow. For a library-accelerated idea, you can take your proposition back to the friends or foundation. But you should also consider building a grant application in conjunction with a local unit of government (your own, if municipally funded, or a partner) using a two-step approach. These steps are contingent on one another. Write the grant for a two- or three-year period with defined outcomes, and make an agreement with your governmental funding partner that the grant will be added to the regular budget upon successfully achieving the outcomes. Too often, the capacity-building grants that come from outside funders are not properly leveraged and written into the local tax code. It’s like the acceleration is a bump instead of a build.

How Do We Budget For R&D?
The best way to fund research and development is to go to taxpayers either through a vote (if that is how you are set up) or
through a municipal budget increase. At EveryLibrary, we know that voters and residents are hungry for the vision of a twenty-first century library to come true in their town. They are eager to hear from you, the expert in twenty-first century librarianship. If your tax base is still at post-recession levels, the vision you need to bring to the public is one of innovation, not just incremental improvements. Ask the voters.

When a venture capital firm invests in a new company or a new idea, expectations are that no profits will be realized until several fiscal years into the venture. There may be a belief that no revenue will come in at all. The startup deal is that 100% of the money invested by venture capitalists will be dedicated to building a product and securing market share. On the face of it, this is crazy. Yet we need to take some inspiration from that. This isn’t a simple “go for it.” This is a strategic approach to add capacity by asking for the funding you need.

John Chrastka is founder and executive director of EveryLibrary, the first nationwide political action committee for libraries. To learn more, visit

This article was published in Gale’s Impact Spring/Summer 2016 issue, read more >>

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