As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing John Chrastka.
John Chrastka is executive director of EveryLibrary, the first nationwide political action committee for libraries, and the EveryLibrary Institute, a nonprofit focused on research and training to stabilize and extend library funding. Since 2012, EveryLibrary has helped over 100 library communities in the United States with ballot measures for funding, operations and buildings, winning more than 80% and securing over $328 million in funding on Election Days. EveryLibrary runs SaveSchoolLibrarians.org, a digital advocacy site focused on preserving budgets and positions for school libraries. A long-time library trustee, supporter and advocate, Mr. Chrastka is a former president of the Board of Trustees for the Berwyn (IL) Public Library (2006–2015) and is a former president of the Reaching Across Illinois Libraries System (RAILS), a multi-type library system. Prior to his work on EveryLibrary, he was a partner in AssociaDirect, a Chicago-based consultancy focused on supporting associations in membership recruitment, conference, and governance activities, and was Director for Membership Development at the American Library Association (ALA). He was named a 2014 Mover & Shaker by Library Journal for his work with EveryLibrary. He tweets at @mrchrastka.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Even though I run a library-focused political action committee, I am not a librarian. I’ve never worked in a library and I don’t have a library science degree. I come at doing political and funding-focused work for libraries from a civilians perspective. I believe in anchor institutions and infrastructure as a way to build communities into more interesting, thriving, and prosperous places. I’m also interested in issues like zoning,transportation, housing, and parks because I see that policies around livability drive equity and wellbeing for all our neighbors. Libraries, to me, are key educational, work-force, business development, and community cohesion infrastructure. My co-founders and I started EveryLibrary as the first and only national political action committee for libraries because of the political nature of library funding and the needs to reintegrate public libraries into the plans for successful towns, cities, and counties. We expanded into supporting school libraries because they are the largest classroom in the school and the one place where every student can access learning how they want to. I’m not a big reader myself. But I’m very interested making sure that it’s available to all for fun, entertainment, and education.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When we were first starting out we followed the lead of several effective community-based organizations and ran a petition drive during another organization’s conference. We passed around clip boards asking people to sign up to support libraries. That way, we could build our contact database and share our messages. The thing was, that was seen as unwelcome by the host organization. As a scrappy little organization, we apologized and decided to instead become hosts ourselves. So instead of passing a clipboard we throw good parties and invite the whole conference. The idea of celebrating successes, mourning losses, and building networks through special events is a lot more powerful over the long haul. And fun.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Two movies were key to my understanding about ideation and entrepreneurship. I’d highly recommend the original Ghostbusters alongside The Princess Bride for their management theory and insights. Ghostbusters, fundamentally, is a story about how career disruption can lead to innovation and discovery. The scene where Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd’s characters talk about what to do after being fired from their university jobs is a legitimate strengths-finders exercise. And while the Princess Bride is a sweet love story, the scene where Wesley is given the miracle pill and brought back to life and his first questions are designed to evaluate the assets and liabilities of the team as they face significant challenges and then engage in a deliberative process of discovery and development of otherwise hidden assets is a Masters Class in management theory.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our vision statement is “Any library funding challenge anywhere should matter to every library everywhere”. The hope behind that vision is essentially one of mutual aid across the sector where resources are pooled (through donations) and risk is mitigated through direct action. We hope to create a future school libraries and public libraries are properly resourced because of the many benefits that accrue to people when there are librarians at work in communities and on campuses. Our organization is set up as a political action committee intentionally in order to put that vision and mission to work. The form of the organization is different than every other organization in the library support ecosystem because our work is uniquely focused on the funding for libraries. It’s the ‘right tool for the right job’ to be politically active when funding comes mainly from taxes. We find that our donors appreciate that most of all.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
For me, the first principle is “get up and do the work”. Through the ups and through the downs it’s absolutely critical to show up with your authentic self and apply that to the work. Some days are incremental, and others are leaps. But having a through-line is only possible if you are intentionally engaged in your own success. As a mission-driven donor-supported organization we are doing work that other people believe in and value but cannot do themselves. I think about the work of organizations I believe in like Greenpeace when I need motivation. I’m not going to get into a dinghy and save the whales myself. But I value and appreciate their work so much that I’ll cut them a check every month. And why is that? Because I see them showing up for an issue I think is mission-critical. They may not win every fight, but they show up.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Both of my parents, who are in their early 80s, got COVID and I spent most of April nursing them back to health. Two of my brothers are on indefinite furloughs because the fundamentals of their workplaces have shifted because of the pandemic. One is in hospitality, and I cannot see how that sector rebounds until herd immunity kicks in. My wife works on the admin team for our county department of public health and is burning both ends of the candle right now. But we’ve come together across these challenges by doing two big things: listening to each other and telling each other the truth about how we are feeling and doing. There is a lot of compassion in listening, but unless you share back about how you are doing its charity work and not a family.
As an organization, we’re listening to our library community to try to understand the challenges they are facing as organizations and then respond. One of our disaster-response projects has been to set up a new mutual aid and relief program called the HALO Fund, which stands for “Help a Library Worker Out”. The HALO Fund gives out small personal grants to librarians, library workers, and staff who have furloughed or laid off during the COVID Crisis. We are a small organization without an endowment, so it’s a cash-in cash-out project. But we wanted to respond in the most concrete way possible, which to us to help our colleagues weather the financial difficulties.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
When my parents caught the COVID I needed to go on Family Leave to help them out. The thing is, we are not a large enough organization to have family leave contingencies. It never really occurred to us before. But, we are very close as a team and there was never a question from my co-founders and partners that I needed to step away for a few weeks. When I got back to work full-time, it was critical to engage our donors to see how they were doing in the moment. As a donor-supported organization, about half of our revenue comes from individual donors and half from our corporate partners. While our corporate donors share our mission in support of libraries and library workers, their own sales cycles have disrupted and are uncertain. It’s been important for us to continue to honor their prior donations for what they are: a commitment to the future of libraries. They are all continuing with us as partners even if there is a longer time between direct donations.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
For family and friends, I need to be there to listen to how they are, what they are feeling, and what they need. But to be true friends and real family I also need to tell then the truth about how I am doing and what I am experiencing. If I’m not in touch with that, I can’t be a good leader for my organization or in my sector. It’s a fraught time. I’m trying to help where I can, listen and support when I can’t, and be honest in my responses.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I think that any mission-driven organization or company can succeed when they look for ways to help connect people either synchronously or asynchronously in the new health and wellbeing climate. During the shutdown, there are lots of introverts who have come to realize that unintentional isolation is very different than they may have thought. And there are even more extroverts who are looking to reconnect and recharge in less socially-distant settings. I think that there are opportunities for companies to create or reinvigorate solutions for both those two personality types. I look at libraries already doing that for distance learning and online reading and hope to see it continue as things start to open up.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I hope it does. There are fundamental injustices and inequities within our society. As a system, capitalism creates winners and loses in the marketplace. In the marketplace, if everyone is behaving ethically that isn’t un-just. It is simply the market at work. But in a capitalist society we learn the wrong lessons from the market place and feel like it is normal or natural or even desirable for there to be losers among our neighbors. If we have any hope for permanent change it has to be about recognizing the social, racial, and class inequities and addressing them through policy. Government and charity and the marketplace and figure this out but only if our assumptions are more humane than the marketplace alone allows.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
At EveryLibrary, we’ve seen the rapid shift to virtual officing for library workers and librarians and think that even after building reopen to the public that there will be a blended approach to services. We’re taking a big step and putting on a new international online conference focus on library funding and advocacy this September. Without that COVID-shift in the worklife of our library community I don’t think it would possible. It is an entirely new market for us and is only possible to leverage because we’re paying attention to the people we serve.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
The mission of our organization has not changed. We’re focused on libraries and library workers. But the way we’re operationalizing our mission certainly has. For anyone who is looking at the challenges and opportunities it may be smart to evaluate and re-tool the techniques you use to deliver your mission rather than the mission itself.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have to credit my grandfather when he said “I’d rather see 70% of something than a 100% of nothing”. There is a true entrepreneurial spirit there. It’s not saying “It’s good enough”. It’s the heart of a fail-fast fail-forward approach to innovation, discovery, and iteration. There are times when you run a small organization or a new one that 50% days are winners.
How can our readers further follow your work?
We are on social media at “EveryLibrary” on FB, Twitter and IG and our website is at libraries2020.org. We’re hoping to reach with 1 million Americans who care about libraries and their communities. I’d love to connect with folks there.