In this blog post John Dawson, Development Manager at Locality, writes about the recent Business Planning Webinar that he hosted for the network and gives some insights into developing a business plan for your community managed library.

Back at the end of 2017 we ran a webinar for community libraries on business planning. Despite the pre-Christmas haze we had a great turnout and some interesting questions, all pertinent as we looked ahead to last week’s community managed libraries conference in Sheffield.

The idea of business plans sounds daunting to many, either writing them or reading them. At Locality we regularly help communities solve common issues, think through their long term objectives and start to make moves towards realising their ambitions.

We don’t always start with the concept of a ‘traditional business plan’, as this has connotations about lengthy and dry documents that take an age to create. Instead we talk to people about their ideas, get people discussing the issues in a structured way, and start to capture some of the headlines. This process of business planning gets key individuals discussing complex ideas, gets disagreement out into the open, and ultimately gets them on the same page about the future direction.

Community libraries can have some strong Unique Sales Points (space, captive audience, volunteer numbers, local reputation, footfall and location) but these need identifying and to some degree monetising with innovative new services to create the income that will sustain the whole operation. We encourage communities to think more broadly than ‘just’ a library, and consider how to identify and meet broader community needs, to become a multi-purpose community business, or community hub. This often requires diversification, new ‘markets’ (paying customers – which could be funders, individuals, donors, businesses etc.) and new higher margin products (activities that create surpluses to reinvest in the whole enterprise). A planned move from a pre-revenue service where everything is ‘free’ (funded by one customer – the local council) to a freemium offer where activities are funded by a growing number of customers. None of this has to be at the expense of maintaining high quality library services.

Sometimes a simple tool to structure discussion, or some external facilitation can really help to bring out different ideas and help move towards a common direction. It can also help to park time consuming and detailed operational issues that in the bigger scheme of things are less important. Start with the vision and mission and build from there.

The information gathered through business planning needs organising and can form different ‘plans’, for different audiences. The level and type of detail you would want to tell volunteers, trustees, funders and investors about your future ambitions will all vary.

As such, business plans should have a defined purpose. The purpose will influence how the plan will look. Remain realistic, a plan should meet its purpose but might not meet every purpose.

An internal development document, that you use as a management tool to monitor progress can be a highly effective business plan for your purposes. Trustees and management can use it to guide priorities and development towards your long term mission. However, it might be lacking in the detail that an investor or funder would wish to see… but that detail can sometimes be too much for a useful day-to-day management tool.

Be creative with your business plans and find something that works for you and the reader. A business plan should convince the reader that you have a destination and a clear route to get there. However, remember that opportunities come and go and not everything can be planned for. Therefore be open to changing circumstances and updating plans with new activities that fit your values and work towards your vision.

A recording of the webinar and a number of webinar resources can be found on our Resources page.