“First, think small. Second, think big.”
The Meridian Library Foundation caught our attention at the end of last year when sales from their Read Banned Books campaign on Bonfire suddenly skyrocketed – seemingly out of nowhere. Their campaign had gone viral, thanks to a TikTok, and was receiving an unprecedented amount of support from all over the world. Within a matter of days they had raised enough proceeds from shirt sales and donations to FULLY FUND the construction of the Early Literacy & Sensory Installations at their new library branch. Needless to say, this is a fundraising success story for the books – and it’s not even finished yet.
In the hopes of helping other nonprofits achieve similar results with their fundraising efforts, I reached out to Eryn Turner (she/her), the Executive Director of the Meridian Library Foundation and the woman behind the Read Banned Books campaign, to learn what contributed to their success.
Read on for the full interview with Eryn.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be Executive Director of the Meridian Library Foundation!
“Hi there! My name is Eryn Turner (she/her), and I am the Executive Director of the Meridian Library Foundation in Meridian, Idaho. I am a self-proclaimed extreme book nerd and have been since a very young age. I’ve always found comfort, greater understanding, and swashbuckling adventure in the novels, plays, and poetry that I’ve read. As a long-time patron of our local library, I found out about a temporary grant-funded position to run a kindergarten-readiness program for the library. I was hired in this temporary position, then asked to apply for a new position that would start and run a nonprofit organization to help support the financial needs of the library…and here we are, four years later!”
The Meridian Library Foundation was founded in 2019 – what is the purpose of this foundation? What is its importance?
“The Meridian Library Foundation began as a blue-sky vision of our library director at the time and several influential community members. Our city was growing exponentially (and still is!), and we struggled to keep up with the demand for new schools, houses, wider roads, and essential public services like libraries. As a government agency, the library is not able to save funds for large capital projects and has relied on bonds and levies in the past.
As a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization we can solicit major gifts, fundraise, and write grants to help supplement the levy funds to bring much-needed resources to our ever-growing community. In just a few years, the Foundation has raised over $522,000 to help fund 3D printers, laptops, laser engravers, podcasting equipment, audio-visual boards, children’s books, Early Literacy & Sensory Installations, and more, for our Meridian Library and community. In addition to raising these much-needed funds, the Foundation has also been able to advocate for our library and showcase the incredible work of library staff.”
What originally brought you to Bonfire?
“Like many organizations in 2020, the Foundation looked for ways to pivot and create virtual fundraising opportunities. I came across Bonfire, had a chat with one of the service representatives, and loved that we would have zero upfront costs and that our very small nonprofit wouldn’t have to worry about production or shipping. I created a few initial designs that our Board voted on, and our first annual apparel campaign was launched!
We had a modest goal to sell between 50-100 shirts and reached our goal, raising just over $1000 for our library. Stewardship is important to me, so I mailed each person a thank you letter and bookmark. The following year, 2021, we created a new design with matching bookmarks, and again met our goal, raising approximately $1,200 with each person receiving a matching bookmark in the mail from the Foundation.”
Tell us about your Read Banned Books campaign. What was the inspiration behind this design?
“Our “Read Banned Books” design was created in the summer of 2022 for our third annual apparel campaign. Libraries across the country have been under increased scrutiny in recent years, and our own library was under attack by a small group of people. Other members of our community had been understandably frustrated at these attacks and asked me if I could design something edgier (our previous two designs were cute with light-hearted messages of “Happiest when reading”, or “It’s a great day to read a book”).
I did not want to inflame any tensions in our community, and I didn’t want to design a shirt that was disrespectful or a “conversation ender”. At the same time, I was increasingly disheartened to see lists and lists of books being removed from libraries across the country, even in neighboring cities, sometimes with no reason indicated. Some of the books I was seeing on those lists were required reading in high school, or I’d read as an adult and WISHED I’d read in high school because they’d helped me process and think about topics that were difficult to talk about.
I pulled a list of books that have historically been banned nationwide from the American Library Association website and thought…this could be our shirt. I tried to select a diverse range of titles, some that had particular meaning to me, some that just fit aesthetically into the design and subtly added in the “Read Banned Books” words throughout. I was really happy with how it turned out in my test print – it felt like a conversation starter (and truly has been every time I wear one of the shirts!). It was a simple design…and BONUS: it offered a list of books to read/reread!”
Your Read Banned Books campaign has been hugely successful, largely due to a viral TikTok posted by one of your followers that featured them wearing the Read Banned Books shirt – did you anticipate this response at all? Why do you think this campaign specifically has received so much attention and support?
“Taking previous campaigns into consideration, our goal was to raise around $1,000-1,200 with our 2022 design. There was definitely more initial interest in this design than in previous years, and we raised around $1,300 during our first campaign batch. After the initial launch, I opened the shirt up for anyone who might have missed the deadline.We continued to see regular sales (a few a week) throughout November and into December – and I continued to get email notifications from Bonfire so I could send out thank you letters with the matching bookmark.
On December 13th, I knew something was up around lunchtime. I had received a dozen email Bonfire purchase notifications and wondered if a book club all decided to buy shirts at the same time. I took a quick break to grab a snack and by the time I was back at my desk, I had more emails and phone calls from across the country asking if they could still buy our shirt. Among the emails was one from a Booktok influencer (Katie M / @katiemreads) who mentioned a social media post she’d done about our new design, and that many of her followers were asking if the shirt was still available. Over the course of the afternoon, we saw steady sales every single minute – I had to create a filter for Bonfire sale emails to go to a separate folder because I’d received thousands of emails within just a few short hours!
Library staff and the Foundation were inundated with phone calls, emails, and walk-in patrons, all asking where to get our shirts. We were able to quickly put up social media information, a header on our supportmld.org webpage with Bonfire links to our shirt campaign, and a banner on our library’s web page to visit the Foundation website for more information about the shirts.
We were also able to partner with the Booktok influencer (Katie M / @katiemreads) to do frequent updates about how the donations were supporting our library. Within a few days, we’d raised over $60,000 in shirt sales and donations to fully fund all the Early Literacy & Sensory Installations at a new library branch (opening soon!) designed for patrons of all abilities.
Our campaign saw another wave of interest in late February when a small group petitioned the county to dissolve our entire Meridian Library District. Local grassroots organizers deemed our design to be the unifying shirt of library supporters during petition hearings. It was a visually powerful display of library support and raised an additional $15,000 to put more books and technology into our new library.
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine or anticipate this level of support for our shirt campaign. I truly believe that the success of this campaign is a direct reflection of excellent library staff and services across the country and a statement of support for our freedom to read. I and the Foundation Board are overwhelmed with the generosity we’ve seen from supporters locally, nationwide (in every US State!), and even in Canada, Australia, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Norway, and beyond. I cannot explain the longevity of this campaign; I can only say Thank You, from the bottom of my heart.”
Looking back over your viral success story, do you think other nonprofits could experience success on a similar scale? What advice would you give them to help them get there?
“I have already had the opportunity to speak with other nonprofits and libraries around the country asking about our Bonfire experience. Our design was simple but it resonated with our community. I would encourage other organizations to consider designs or themes that are relevant or important to their own communities, possibly even bringing in local artists or creating a youth design contest (the winning design is on the shirt).
Another suggestion that I believe helped increase sales for our organization is to leave off branding. I intentionally did not put our logo or name on any of our designs because I knew they’d be gifts for people out of our little community. The Bonfire reports are incredibly helpful in seeing what is working…during our first year, I found that 17% of sales came from outside our state. The following year 24% of sales came from out of state/country. I would estimate that our “Read Banned Books” design has more like 90% of sales out of state/country.
First, think small. What would your current donors (those you’ve developed relationships with) be interested in wearing on a shirt? Second, think big. How can I turn this design into something more universal? It may be as simple as leaving off a logo or organization name. This might not always be an option, but there is a great opportunity to share your story and what your organization is raising funds for on the Bonfire campaign page itself. I have found that people click on our link because they are initially interested in the designs…I have also found that they are drawn to our story and fundraising project, and will often leave an additional donation at checkout…we don’t need our logo on the design for them to remember they support our library every time they wear our shirt!”
Eryn’s top tips for nonprofits fundraising with t-shirts:
– Keep your t-shirt design simple.
– Listen to feedback from your community.
– Start small. Think about a design that your current donors would like.
– Next, think big. How can you make your design more universal so that it resonates with a larger audience?
– Leave your logo off completely OR make it very small so the rest of the shirt design can shine!
– Share your story on your fundraising page.
You’ve raised $89,391 (at the time of this interview) so far through this campaign – how has this money benefitted the Meridian Library Foundation? How has fundraising through Bonfire helped support your mission?
“Our mission is to support the financial needs of the Meridian Library District. We are currently wrapping up construction on a 15,000-square-foot full-service library branch dedicated to early literacy & designed with accessibility in mind. This is an innovative library and has a special place in my heart as I know this space will positively impact the lives of so many people. During the design process, we brought in members of our community for focus groups with the architects…we kept hearing that many public spaces are not accessible for children with disabilities. I myself have a child on the Autism Spectrum, with Type 1 Diabetes, and have personally felt the restrictions when visiting a public library. If it’s too loud, noisy, or overwhelming for kids, parents often have to leave a program early.
This new library branch offers a dedicated Sensory Room next to the Program Room so families will have the option to regulate sensory stimulation in a quieter room with dimmed lighting, crash pads, and other sensory tools. This allows kids to still participate in programs in a way that is meaningful and accessible to them. Sensory Kits with noise-canceling headphones & fidget toys will also be available for kids to check out and use during programs or while they cruise the stacks to find new books. The height of the furniture is lower, so all patrons can access material independently, even from a wheelchair. The layout of the bathroom offers larger changing benches for families with older children, or seniors, requiring assistance with changing. There is a flexible wellness room with comfortable seating for nursing parents, for patrons needing to check their blood sugar or take life-saving medications (like insulin), or for community members needing a quiet room for reflection or prayer.
$89,391 has helped us FULLY FUND all of the Early Literacy & Sensory Installations (toys, kits, crash mats, reading havens, blocks, bubble panels, fiber optic curtain, etc) for the Children’s Play Area, Sensory Room, and Program Room. We have also been able to purchase innovative technology that encourages kids to learn through play using educational math, science, and reading programs. Our library will be the first public space in the entire state of Idaho to offer this tech board! As we continue with the construction process, the Foundation will be able to fund more projects for the library that help turn a building into an incredible place of curiosity and learning.”
What advice would you give to other nonprofits who are considering utilizing apparel fundraising?
“Do it! There is zero risk and zero initial investment with Bonfire’s platform. There is some truth to “you need to spend money to make money”, but when you’re a small nonprofit with not a lot of funds to begin with, this is an incredible option that can be customized to ANY fundraising cause.”
What are your hopes for the future of the Meridian Library Foundation and the communities it serves?
“We are in the process of helping open a new library branch in May 2023. We will then be focused on helping design, build, and fund a new library branch at the opposite end of the community, then renovation of our main library location. We have a diverse community, with diverse needs. Our hopes are to meet as many of those needs as possible through thoughtful library design, intentional partnerships…and a whole lot of fundraising for books, technology, toys, etc!”
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about your journey / work?
“I am so proud of the work of our Foundation, and the work of our library. As a mother of a child with disabilities, it is incredibly meaningful that the library staff have reached out to all pockets of our community to include them in the design process of our library spaces. Parents and caregivers (providing assistance to those requiring accommodations) were able to speak directly with the architects and brainstorm new ways to make this public space more accessible. Our new library is a direct reflection of our community and its needs. I am encouraged by the level of care and thought that has been poured into this space, and I am inspired by the dedicated staff that are committed to including ALL our kids in public spaces and programs. This particular library has been a real project of my heart, and it has been a joy to fundraise for it and see it come to life. Thank you so much for letting me share my story and the story of our library.”
Learn more about the Meridian Library Foundation and their ongoing projects on their website.
Thank you for taking the time to read this interview and learn about the work that Eryn is doing to help strengthen and empower her community.
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Written by: Hayden Ireland / Content Specialist
Illustrated by: Madison Summers / Lead Marketing Designer