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The William Penn Foundation’s (the Foundation) recent announcement of a three-year, $25 million grant to the Free Library of Philadelphia (Free Library) reflects a new view among civic and social-good leaders that libraries should expand their role to serve communities.

Free Library of Philadelphia

An architectural rendering of what the library is calling “the common” at the Central Branch. Its a flexible, 8,000-square-foot lobby-like space. Photo: The Philadelphia InquirerOnce only seen as a place to research and rent books, libraries are evolving to meet additional needs.Through the Foundation’s funding,The Free Library will provide programming for entrepreneurs and job seekers, teach culinary skills, and support early childhood literacy initiatives. The Free Library aims to fill parts of the roles of closed Philadelphia schools and service organizations.

The Foundation’s gift is their largest ever, representing an estimated eight percent of its total giving budget through the next three years.The donation is a strong endorsement of the Free Library’s ability to serve Philadelphia as an anchor institution. More influential nonprofit and philanthropic organization are embracing the shift for libraries to confront society’s challenges.

The Knight Foundation, one of the nation’s most influential foundations with an endowment of more than $2 billion, seeks to fund projects that build on the transformational ability of libraries.Through September 30, organizations, businesses, and individuals can submit proposals through the Knight News Challenge.

What can we learn?

It’s early to determine the final role of libraries. But as the Free Library’s evolution indicates, more libraries will have a large role as community anchors.

Many foundations are looking to fund organizations who can successfully prove how they can serve multiple needs within a community. This strategy makes sense from foundation’s viewpoint. It allows them to get the strongest return on investment for their donation. Organizations with the capacity and expertise to hold multiple roles are especially critical in today’s nonprofit landscape. The evolution of libraries is a reminder that the function of your organization doesn’t have to be static. Responding to the changing external environment is critical to remain a valuable asset to your service population.


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