Monday, October 25, 2021

Webinar: Before Friends Become Frienemies

For nearly the past two years, I have been the board president for my library system's board of trustees. Our system also has a friends group. So it was only natural that I be interested in this webinar sponsored by the Friends of Libraries Section of the New York Library Association

The webinar was on Sept. 30 and it has taken me a while to get my notes together.


  • Lisa C. Wemett, Immediate Past President of FLS/NYLA
  • Melissa Tacke, Director, Castleton Library  

Short Description:

Hear some practical strategies to facilitate positive and productive discussions, working together to avoid potential conflict between the library administration, library trustees, and Friends of the Library. We’ll discuss some common situations where the community volunteers and library civic leaders could conceivably lock horns.

Learning Objectives:

At the conclusion of the webinar, participants will be able to:

  • Relate the basics of conflict behavior and approaches to conflict resolution
  • Explain and utilize the outline of “Working Together: Roles & Responsibilities Guidelines” for discussion with all parties (library administration, Board of Trustees, Friends)
  • Formulate a basic operating agreement for the Friends, library administration, and library’s Board of Trustees to manage operations smoothly and guide the arrangements for a constructive partnership
  • Prepare a standardized document to guide financial contributions from the Friends to the library
Thomas-Kilmann: Assertiveness versus Cooperation


This session was focused on what friends of a library do and how to avoid conflict between the friends, the library, and the library's board of trustees.

Friends are a valuable support system. They provide goodwill, public awareness, and advocacy. This is a team that helps to support the library's efforts.  The library director, library board, and friends should work together to benefit the library.

Board of trustees and friends often find their relationship to be complicated, because of how they intertwine. Conflict includes:

  • Misunderstanding
  • lack of information 
  • poor communication
  • looking for a scapegoat

If a conflict becomes wide spread, more people can become affected by it. Strategies to avoid conflict include:

Open Communications

  • Clear and open communications including written reports, emails, memos, and meeting minutes
  • Face to face meetings can be helpful in ensuring cooperation
  • The trio of liaisons, who serve as ex-officio members
  • Staff liaison to the friends - the director or designee
  • The entire library staff can be champions for the friends' activities
  • trustee liaison to the friends
  • Helps the friends feel like true partners
  • A representative of the friends should  be invited to the library's board of trustees

Clarifying Roles and Responsibilities

  • All parties must be clear in their roles.
  • See Library Friends and Foundations in the Handbook for Library Trustees of New York State.
  • See also Working Together: Roles & Responsibilities Guidelines in the Handbook for Library Trustees of New York State.
  • The director, board, and friends all have specific responsibilities
  • Friends control their own operations and decision-making, but cannot make decisions about library operations.
  • Friends may collaborate with staff on specific activities
  • Keep in mind that the role of the friends may depend on the interests of its members

Having a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)

  • Consider this a "pre-nup" for friends, board, and staff
  • It defines how the entities will function together
  • Written, provides guidelines, clarifies roles and responsibilities
  • United for Libraries has guidelines for drafting these documents in Libraries Need Friends: Starting a Friends Group or Revitalizing the One You Have (see "The Formal Operating Agreement" and "Sample Memorandum of Understanding").
    • See also "Understanding Roles"
    • Development of this document requires frank and open discussions. 
    • Parties need to consider "what ifs" and scenarios.
    • Should be jointly drafted by all parties.
  • The sample MOU from United for Libraries is short. Consider what information it might contain including:
    • Names of the parties involved
    • Purpose and mission
      • Include that the friends are an independent group 
    • Friends roles and responsibilities
      • Friends will publicly support library policies
    • What are the friends initiatives, e.g., purpose of fundraising
      • Document should include what the friends will not fund.
    • How funds will be distributed
    • Support needed from the library, e.g., staff support. Statements may be broad.
    • How friends will be included in the library's planning processes
    • A plan for communications
    • Assurance that friend will maintain their non-profit status
  • MOU is signed by the board president, friends president and director.
  • The MOU should be reviewed regularly and when there is a change in leadership.
  • Should include a succession plan. 
  • Disbanding and dissolution language, which allows the group to continue with new leadership and new members. This is separate from the text required by the IRS.

Other Thoughts

  • If there is no current MOU, what are the current operating procedures? That could be the start point for the development of an MOU.
  • There should be an annual joint meeting of the friends and the board of trustees. 
  • Could their be a joint standing committee? Would that be helpful?
  • How does volunteer support fit into the long term plans for the library?
    • Discuss the library's budget and what the friends hope to contribute.
    • Note that friends cannot tell the library how to spend money. They also cannot withhold money. Friends funds are for the library.
    • Create guidelines for expenditures of funds.
  • There should be transparency on how the funds are used. "We made this happen."
    • Friends and the library should agree on how funds will be used. Fund extras.
    • What kinds of expenses have the friends been covering? These should be things that are outside the library's normal operating budget.
  • How much revenue should the friends hold to help with their organizational expenses? 20%?
  • Who should request funds from the friends? When are requests sent to the friends? How often can requests be sent?
  • Friends need good, clear financial systems. Put safe guards in place. Create guidelines.


We tend to shy away from having formal agreements, thinking that a handshake (informal) agreement will suffice. Creating an MOU may seem like too much work, but they create a framework to ensure that everything proceeds as the friends, library board, and director intend. It could be that the MOU does not need to be consulted frequently. It will be vital, though, when questions are asked or people are unsure what to do. 

The defined processes - e.g., having specific meetings between the friends, library board, and director - are another step in assuring that each party is communicating well and asking as expected. Yes, having liaisons are good, but joint meetings brings more people into the conversation and hopefully into agreement.

Having a friends group is work for all involved - library board, library director, and the friends themselves. There is a cookware ad that says, "set it and forget it".  That phrase is not one to use with your friends group! Just like the library itself and the board of trustees, the friends group needs regular attention.

Additional Resources

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