Nonprofit Marketing: Big Bang, Little Buck

Virginia Baeckler, director of the Plainsboro Public Library, was happily working as an arts and education lobbyist for the New Jersey State Council On the Arts when someone threw her resume into the hat during Plainsboro’s search for a new library director.

This was back in 1991 when the library was still housed in a tiny, 1,400-square-foot building that had been a two-room schoolhouse earlier in the century. Baeckler managed to keep her cool during the unexpected phone call from the search committee and she followed through on the suggestion to have a look at the library before her interview. Here’s how her visit went: “No one talked to me,” she recalls. “There was one sofa, one table, and it had gorgeous two-story windows that were shaded.”

She left and called the board chair, whom she told in no uncertain words that they had the wrong person. She remembers saying, “If I were to come back to the library world, I’m a different sort of librarian. I don’t think this is the right place.”

But the board wouldn’t take no for an answer. They knew about Virginia Baeckler and her dedication to making a library a pulsating, living experience, a true community center, and that’s who they wanted. “We want you to come to Plainsboro and do exactly what you did in Ewing,” they told her. “We have never had service commensurate with our size.” Realizing they specifically wanted her, not just another librarian, she replied, “If you’ll better my current salary, I’ll come.” They did. She came.

Baeckler spoke about “PR and Marketing on a Dime” at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s breakfast meeting this Wednesday, May 21, at the Nassau Club.

Baeckler’s first library job — as director of the Mercer County Library in Ewing in the 1970 — holds the key not just to why Plainsboro was so intent on hiring her but also to why libraries today are entirely different institutions than they were back when she got started.

Baeckler talks about the Latin root for library, which might serve as a metaphor for her career as a librarian. As early as the 21st century BCE, there were libraries of clay tablets, and she figured the word for book must have come later. She discovered that the Latin root “liber” refers to the thin membrane in a tree between the wood that is growing internally and the outer bark that is dead. “The membrane carries the entire life of the tree,” says Baeckler, “and I got fascinated with the idea that libraries are pictures of life that went past and life coming in the future. It is the gateway.”

It took Baeckler a little while to make her way from academe to library school. She grew up in Ramsey, her father an engineer at Bell Labs, and studied medieval Russian at Cornell University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in 1964 and her master’s in 1967. She had gotten started with Russian in high school with a Latin teacher who believed the world should be learning Russian. She put her beliefs into action by teaching Russian to a group of students every day after school for two hours.

While Baeckler was working on her doctorate, she started to feel that academe was not where she wanted to be. Having worked in the Soviet Union, she says, “I had been in a country where people disappeared in the night for being friends with Americans.” Then, when she returned in the late ‘60s, seeing Daniel Berrigan beating his chest about how terrible it was that he was put in jail overnight felt a little hollow to her. Although others urged her not to throw away her graduate education, she says, “Something inside of me said there has to be more. I felt stifled and useless and silly.”

She moved to Princeton, where she headed up the Slavic order section of Princeton University.

Then she met her future husband, a pragmatist who told her, “If you’re not going to use your academic degree, then get a library degree. You seem to gravitate to libraries.”

So she went to library school at Rutgers University, and because her scholarship required her to work in a public library, she got a job at the Mercer County Library’s headquarters. There she came up against a traditional establishment that believed a library was primarily a repository of books, with maybe an occasional event here and there. That wasn’t good enough for Baeckler, who wanted to bring the library in synch with the root of its name. “I wanted to bring to the community the fact that the library was an alive, growing, changing place,” she says.

So in the back of a dark bar, she made an offer to the powers that be: “If I can deliver four programs that cost nothing and you make headlines and attract new clientele, you will get off my back and let me do what I want.” They agreed.

Baeckler planned a medieval music performance, a guitar player singing Hispanic music, and Israeli dancing in the park. “They brought out new, excited, energetic, enthused people,” she recalls. “What we were doing was bringing alive the books, learning, and culture that are contained in a library but are not very visual.” And so she continued during the rest of her tenure.

While she was in Ewing, everybody would tell her, “You should write this down; nobody is doing the types of things you’re doing and you’re doing it with no money, and your programs are attracting attention.” So when Baeckler retired in 1975, about to have her first child, she decided to write a book for librarians based on the types of programming she had implemented for Mercer County.

With the manuscript for “Go Pep and Pop: 250 Tested Ideas for Lively Libraries” in hand, she approached the editor of “The Unabashed Librarian,” Marvin Scilken, to write an introduction. He was well known among librarians, she says, describing him as “a wonderful ‘60s hippy,” and his response was true to form. He told her, “I will not write an introduction to your book, but I’ve always wanted to publish a book and yours will be the first.”

“Go Pep and Pop” went through multiple printings. Offers came from around the country to give workshops to librarians. She quickly realized that librarians needed more than just bare-bones ideas. “They would look at an idea and not have the remotest idea of what to do with it,” she says. The realization was humbling. “An idea isn’t enough for the average person,” she concluded.

She wrote two other books on public relations that got down to the nitty-gritty of planning programs: clip art, offset printing, and a good electric typewriter. She would also share examples of horrible PR pieces and says she became “the voice of PR.”

Eventually she went back to work part time as a lobbyist and part-time public relations person. When she decided that a full-time job made sense, she went to work with Arts Council.

Of course the reason that the offer from Plainsboro Library dropped out of nowhere was that someone had read all of her books and wanted the kinds of activities she had described to be available to the growing population of Plainsboro.

Two years after she was hired, in 1993, the library moved to its current facility, which it has already outgrown. The next building, which is under construction, will have a dedicated art gallery, a science center, and a huge community room and will foster arts, science, and cultural exchange within the diverse Plainsboro population. The library will be part of the new town center being created off of Schalks Crossing Road across from the Superfresh.

From her extensive experience with public relations and libraries, Baeckler has a few tips about creative ways for companies to get their names into the public eye without spending millions on sophisticated advertising campaigns:

Put mentors out in the community, libraries, and schools. When a scientific company like FMC sends mentors to the library over an extended lunch hour or when volunteers from Siemens come to mentor the library’s robotics program, which started when Siemens donated two robotic kits, everyone gains. Employees go back to work sky high and reinvigorated, telling her, “this reminds me of why I went into science.” Although the corporation may not benefit in dollar value, it gets its name out as a company that contributes to the community, and both the employees and the students they work with benefit personally. “Marketing is not spending the biggest dollar to get the best ad,” Baeckler observes.

Baeckler maintains that through mentoring, companies are also influencing the future employment pool. “There is a critical shortage of scientists and engineers in America,” she says, citing 6 million technical and scientific jobs that will be empty by the end of 2008 because they require security and United States citizenship. “At a time when the economy is tanking, there are excellent jobs with no one to fill them,” says Baeckler. “Hopefully mentors will plant seeds to resolve this critical national issue.”

Create an educational center or other entity related to your company’s mission. Bristol-Myers Squibb, says Baeckler, is helping the Plainsboro Public Library create a health education center, and every person who enters the library will see the company’s name on the wall.

Support a community program and gain social capital. Richard Bilotti, publisher of the Trenton Times, endorses the arts wholeheartedly and has created a program that affects every school child in the Trenton system through dance. “It is of course an advertisement for the Trenton Times,” says Baeckler, “but it is also benefiting a segment of Trenton that would otherwise not have access to high-quality art.”

McDonald’s supports medical and health issues, in particular children’s hospitals and illnesses. Baeckler had first-hand personal experience with a McDonald’s restaurant at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which motivates sick kids to get out of bed. Her daughter was in fifth grade when she was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder, usually found in postmenopausal women, in which the body eats up blood cells. First the doctors had to eliminate dire diseases like cancer and lupus, which they did, but her spirits were very low. “She was yellow, being kept alive by transfusions, and was at the point of saying she wished she was dead,” says Baeckler.

But there was McDonald’s, beckoning her to get out of bed and enjoy a meal. “It is used as catalyst to get kids up and out of their miserable, stuck-in-the-hospital, I’m-dying mode,” says Baeckler. “If they can get there in any way, shape, or form, they can eat McDonald’s instead of hospital food.”

Provide a visible gift at an outdoor festival. PNC Bank gave everybody a bright blue balloon at the Plainsboro town festival. It was inexpensive, but something everyone could see, says Baeckler.

So Baeckler advises companies to look in their communities and see what is needed, in health, math/science education, the arts, or whatever interests them. She encourages them to get out of the mode of just operating a business, where they are thinking only about themselves and how to sell more and make more money.

— Michele Alperin

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