Value Propositions for Libraries
Your library has a wide range of services and benefits to offer, and you're justifiably proud of what you do. But across the town square, members of your funding organization (city council, county council, or library district, among others) are feeling the pressure of the current public funding crisis and have many other issues on their minds. How do you find a potent way to summarize your library's impact to this crucial audience in the most effective way possible?
A term from the business world, "value proposition", is gaining currency in the public sector. It is a useful concept that can help you make the connection between what your library does well and what is important to your funders.
Marketing consultant Michael L. Perla (on the excellent Web site www.marketingprofs.com) defines a value proposition as:an offer to some entity or target in which they (the possessor) get more than they give up (merit or utility), as perceived by them, and in relationship to alternatives, including doing nothing.
This compact definition makes a number of important points:
an offer - not a demand, or a requirement, or a plea. There's no emotional charge to a value proposition: you have something of value to offer, and you are offering it.
they get more than they give up - a value proposition describes the benefit that will come from a transaction: If you give me this (the money I am seeking), you will get that (specific benefits that come from public library services).
(merit or utility) - the value in a value proposition can be conceptual (even traditional), but
as perceived by them - it's not what you consider valuable, but what your audience considers valuable. The old saw says perception is 100% of reality; when you construct a value proposition for funders, they are the consumers, and their perception is what counts.
and in relationship to alternatives, including doing nothing - In today's public funding environment, this means that you may well need to demonstrate your value competitively against other services.
The claims you make in a value proposition must fulfill two requirements. They must be:
Actionable by you and/or your organization. Napoleon is supposed to have said that â€œthe great proof of madness is the disproportion of one's designs to one's means. Be sure your promises are aligned with the core strengths of your library.
Credible and compelling to your target audience. Quantitative evidence makes claims credible, and alignment with your audience's interests makes them compelling.
The overlap between these two requirements is the point of power for your value proposition.
The form of the value proposition imposes one additional discipline as well: it is succinct (say, 2 to 4 sentences). The concept of the elevator speech serves well here. Imagine you're waiting in an elevator when the head of your funding organization steps in. What do you say before the elevator reaches the 5th floor?
Although your formal presentations to funding organizations will last longer than a brief elevator ride (one hopes!), the discipline imposed by this will help keep you focused on the critical intersection between what you do well and what your funders care about.
As the diagram indicates, any value proposition you develop will not tell your library's whole story. It won't include the many wonderful but intangible ways you touch your patrons' lives and make a difference for individuals. But developing a value proposition can help you discover and articulate the essential qualities in your library that your funders can feel good about supporting.
There is an important ongoing discussion in the library world about what value really means. Library strategy consultant Gary Deane, in his article on Bridging the Value Gap (Public Libraries volume 42, no. 5, [October 2003]), distinguishes between received library values- including stewardship, service, literacy, and intellectual freedom- and value for library users: the tangible benefits that individuals receive. (This article [not available online] is a thorough discussion of value propositions in the library context and well worth reading if you're interested in exploring this concept further.)
This values vs. value question will continue to generate debate. But in the context of targeted efforts to demonstrate your library's impact, value has a simpler meaning: value to your funding organization. Both traditional library values and individual customer value are potentially part of that story. The key question is: What do my funders value? And the simplicity and power of the value proposition can help you develop effective answers to that question.
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