Today’s letter is from Arun Prabhakaran, an entrepreneurial member of our rapidly growing resilient network.
In it, he interviews Michael Froelich, the founder of the West Philly Tool Library (here’s a previous letter on tool libraries for background), to get an inside look at start and running a tool library. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Resilient communities grow faster when they provide ways for members to reduce their expenses while increasing their productivity at the same time.
One great way to do that is through a community tool library.
A tool library works on the same principle as a book library. Simply, that most of tools that people purchase go unused for the vast majority of the time. So, a library that makes it possible to share these unused tools, allows the community to gain access to a broad set of general purpose and specialized tools without having the expense of purchasing and storing a large collection of tools.
For more insight, let’s take a look at the West Philly Tool Library.
This library, founded in 2007, offers 3,200 tools to the residents of West and Southwest Philadelphia (although there is no residency requirement). The library’s mission is to provide tools to community members so that they may “perform simple home maintenance, tend their yards and gardens, build furniture, start projects, and learn new skills in a safe and affordable manner.”
How the West Philly Tool Library Got Started
The idea for this tool library started with Michael Froehlich, a West Philadelphian with a background in community organizing. At the time, he was living in the Bay Area, studying Law at UC-Berkeley School of Law. While there, he became aware of the tool-lending libraries at the Berkeley and Oakland Public Libraries. He quickly became a regular and saw what a great resource it was for the Bay Area community.
Naturally, he thought: “West Philly could have a tool library, too.”
So, upon completing his degree, Mike moved back to West Philadelphia. A few years later, he began organizing to start the first tool library in Philly, starting with a flyer promoting the concept that he handed out at the Clark Park Farmers’ Market in West Philly. The flyer worked. Eight people came to the first meeting, and after some spirited discussion, the tool library was off to the races.
From the beginning, the West Philly tool library was designed to operate with a low-overhead:
- cheap (or free) rent,
- mostly donated tools,
- in-house tool maintenance and repair,
- and a great deal of know-how applied with a can-do attitude.
Operating a Tool Library
The West Philly Tool Library (WPTL) runs on a budget of less than $20,000 per year. It raises this money through a combination of annual membership fees, late fees, contributions, and grants. About 25% of operating expenses are covered by small grants that are $5,000 or under. Most of the grants support its operations and its annual community education series — which is typically done in conjunction with a neighborhood community association.
The remainder of the expenses are covered by contributions coming in the form of:
- Dues are on a sliding scale from $10-$50 per year.
- Late fees are $1 a day per item.
Overall, there is very little need for larger revenue generating functions. In fact, in the last year or so has the Tool Library’s grew so large it is now exploring the financial requirements necessary to hire a part-time administrative person.
The tools. Approximately two-thirds of the tools they offer are donated. Power tools, however, are mostly purchased new.
Although some tools are not returned promptly–much like a regular book library–the Tool Library sees a very low rate of non-return or theft. So, for the most part, they don’t buy or replace tools because so many get donated. In fact, they receive many more tools than they can store or that anyone would borrow.
So every year in March, the Tool Library holds its annual garage sale, sells off its excess tools–most for only a $1 each. This sale generates about $1000 a year.
While most of the tool maintenance and repair work is done in-house on a volunteer basis, this is a pretty frustrating process and the Tool Library is considering hiring out this function.
In terms of administration, WPTL opted to work with a fiscal sponsor, the Urban Affairs Coalition (UAC), a $30 million nonprofit organization that is the fiscal agent for over 75 nonprofits, large and small. By leveraging the UAC’s 501(c)3 umbrella, the Tool Library was able to further reduce overhead expenses by reducing the amount of time required spent on administrative work (this has proven to be a great decision).
The Tool Library maintains an advisory board that monitors the organization. It was a pretty informal body, holding its meetings almost always with beers in hand. As things have grown, things are becoming a bit more formal, meaning that beers have now become an after-meeting refreshment, and are no longer consumed during meetings.
Growing Community Membership
The get members, the tool library promoted itself through word of mouth, flyers, emails, and the Internet as well as signage outside of the tool library.
People who liked libraries or cooperatives were the first tier of folks that joined. The second tier were mostly college educated folks with jobs– young couples, people who bought fixer-uppers, etc. After the word got out, the Tool Library started to attract more working class and poor residents from the neighborhood. Although no demographic data is officially collected, Froehlich estimates that currently, the membership is about two-thirds individuals and families who would be characterized as middle class or “professionals” and one-third working class or poor.
The Tool Library had limited hours in the beginning based on the availability of their volunteer-led team. Later, they expanded hours by bringing some part-time paid staff. Now, the Tool Library operates Monday through Thursday from 6:30pm to 8:30pm and Saturdays from 9:00am to 3:00pm.
Froehlich has advised a number of other tool libraries that have sprung up around the country. When asked what would he do differently or how he would advise others interested in starting a tool library, Froehlich recommended a few things:
- Make sure that there is a lot of community interest: Without community support, you’re going nowhere fast. With support, the word of mouth and the goodwill you generate will be strong wind in your sails.
- Raise $10,000 – 20,000 upfront: You’ll need things like a computer, shelves, etc. So, it’s best to start with money that you have raised from the community, which serves to build your base of members and supports that you’ll need from the beginning and for the long haul.
- Plan for it to be a volunteer effort: A tool library has very little likelihood of generating sufficient revenue, especially if you are spending money on paid personnel.
- Find a cheap space to rent or find a donated space. Again, keep your overhead low…this isn’t a money maker.
- Don’t get a 501(c); Work with a fiscal sponsor or another nonprofit: Insurance and audit fees alone are cost prohibitive. Add to that accounts payable and receivable, tax filings, human resources, payroll plus everything else and you’ll quickly realize that it’s easier to have someone else handling the details.
- Use a tool library software: Both the South East Portland Tool Library (SEPTL) and the West Seattle Tool Library have developed software to manage the tool collections. The Tool Library uses SEPTL’s Tool Librarian software developed by and loves it; WSTL’s Local Tool is a great option, too. Evaluate both of them and see which one works for you.
- Become of a part of the wider community of tool libraries: It is a network of DIY folks who are genuinely interested in helping others. They are glad to share expertise, ideas, forms, governance documents, etc. For example, you might join the national tool libraries’ google group. Take advantage of these resources!
As one can see, the utility of a tool library makes it a tremendous community asset.
For less than $20,000 a year, an entire community can access a full spectrum of tools that no one single person would buy or use unless they owned a construction or contracting company. With a little ingenuity, a small but committed team of volunteers and some hard work, your town could have a great tool library, too.
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks again to Arun for this excellent contribution.
Your extremely happy we have such an excellent community analyst,
PS: The software the West Philly tool library uses is from the Southeast Portland Tool Library. Take a look at their tool inventory page (which shows if batteries are required and/or the tool is checked out or not). Very simple and very cool.