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by Audrey Partington
The Friends of the Library Montgomery County (FOLMC) has decided to “unfriend” its local chapters.
Fifteen of the county’s 21 branch libraries, including Olney Library, are supported by Friends of the Library chapters.
“Instead of chapters, our new ‘ONE FOLMC’ model will centralize volunteer activities, creating a more unified, efficient and streamlined organization,” according to a memo issued by Pamela Saussy, FOLMC’s president.
“The decision to create a new ONE FOLMC model was driven by an extensive years-long business review that exposed both fiduciary and liability risks that threaten the long-term viability of the whole organization,” she added.
Presidents of the local chapters were notified of the decision by FOLMC Executive Director Ari Brooks during a 20-minutes Zoom session held on March 19. The policy was effective immediately, with transition expected to take several weeks.
“Our long-time library volunteers in the Olney FOL chapter — and hundreds of other volunteers at county libraries elsewhere — did nothing to warrant suddenly hearing ‘as of today, you no longer exist’ without any notice or discussion,” said Salley Shannon, president of the Olney chapter.
“In reality, the Olney FOL does still exist, as do the other FOL chapters,” said Shannon. “That’s because each group is a 501(c)(3) charity, approved by the Internal Revenue Service and the state of Maryland. So we can’t be dissolved because the overall FOL board decided to centralize power and control of money raised.”
Shannon acknowledged that the FOL chapters that wish to continue to operate may need to change their names to signify their independence from the parent organization.
“During the Zoom meeting, Brooks said that a few chapters had failed to file the proper tax forms and that had put the Montgomery County Friends in jeopardy with the IRS,” said Mary Jane Heinbuch, vice president of the Olney chapter. “We were not one of these chapters. Our chapter has been chartered for 22 years. Our bylaws state that our purpose is ‘to operate exclusively for charitable and educational purposes including the support of public library services in the Olney community of Montgomery County, Md.’”
The leadership of the Friends of the Potomac Community Library was also “stunned” by the decision, according to chapter president Edyth Wingate. The Potomac chapter was incorporated in 1991 — the first of its kind in the county.
“As a nonprofit organization run by a 13-member elected Board of Directors made up of volunteer residents and library patrons, we are exploring with other chapters, which are equally concerned, what options may be available to continue to serve our communities,” Wingate said.
“The reason given by FOLMC for closing the chapters is an insult to all the volunteers who have worked so hard for their libraries,” said Karin Currie, founder and vice present of the Potomac Friends chapter. “Of the 15 chapters in existence, one had fallen behind on required filings with the IRS. “Why didn’t the parent organization, FOLMC, step in with help? When a large retail company has underperforming stores it either revamps them or closes them. It does not shut down the whole company.”
Under the decentralized system, fundraising done by the chapters benefits the local branch library with which it is affiliated. Chapter leaders are concerned that the ONE FOLMC model will have a negative impact on community involvement and local programming.
“With your efforts we have been able to fill all requests for support of programs and materials requested by our Olney library staff,” Heinbuch said in an email to book sale volunteers who are members of the Olney Friends chapter. “In addition, we have been able to support community efforts and represent the library at such events as Olney Days, Olney Community Night and Olney Night Out. We have held luncheons for the Olney staff as morale boosters. especially during COVID. We have supported partnerships with the Olney Theatre and the Sandy Spring Museum.”
“Potomac and the 14 other communities deserve to have their libraries reflect the needs of their citizens,” Currie said. “Community based Friends groups help to provide what the county budget can’t. Some need more children’s activities, others more daytime programs for retirees.”
Founded in 1982, FOLMC is an independent nonprofit that has operated for 40 years without relying on government funding. It is not part of Montgomery County Government or Montgomery County Public Libraries (MCPL).
Funds raised by FOLMC provide supplemental funding, programs, and materials and equipment to MCPL. Its cadre of volunteers contribute thousands of hours annually at branch libraries. The organization also operates two used bookstores, in Rockville and Wheaton, which will remain open under the new organizational structure.
Many of the branch libraries, such as Olney Library, operate their own used book sales, which benefit their local branch. Those sales operations have been suspended.
“The money that comes in from our book sales funds many extras,” said Shannon. “The Olney FOL Board recently vote to allocate $1,200 towards programming for the Summer Reading Program. Our chapter volunteers have led weekly English conversation classes, paid for multiple sets of Legos, bought stacks of rubber puzzles for use by toddlers and a display board for Storytime. Just before COVID hit, we purchased two book display tables, and showed up, screwdrivers in hand, to put them together. We’ve been saving to buy furniture for the teen room.”
FOLMC leadership does not anticipate centralization of fundraising and volunteers to have a negative impact on the branch libraries.
“This step does not change FOLMC’s mission to strengthen, promote and champion or to continue directing funds to each branch for which they are raised,” according to Saussy. “FOLMC’s vision that everyone in Montgomery County values and benefits from our public libraries remains the same, as do our values of education, innovation, service, integrity and advocacy. Our volunteers will still carry out book sales and participate in programs supporting their local library. The new ONE FOLMC volunteer model will not impact our relationship with and ability to serve MCPL.”
To read the full text of the FOLMC’s March 19 announcement, go to https://www.folmc.org/from-the-desk-of-the-president/. To learn more about the ONE-FOLMC volunteer service model, go to https://www.folmc.org/one-folmc-faqs/.
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