The Finances

Postage will be your largest expense. Keep in mind that the more you send, the higher the postage costs, and the more requests you fill, the more requests you will receive. Be realistic about how many packages you can afford to send each month and prioritize accordingly.

Aside from sending books, Books Through Bars recommends adhering to a policy of not spending organizational funds on individual prisoners. Some of your members may be involved with support campaigns, legal defense funds, publications. etc. but as a group you must be careful not to spread your finances too thin.

If you can manage to secure a rent free location, your monthly overhead will be minimal.

For handling grants and donations by check or online payments, you will need to set up a bank account in the name of your group. To do this you will need to get an Employer Identification Number from the IRS. The proper form can be downloaded at or you can file online. Simply search “Forms and Publications” for EIN. The application includes instructions for obtaining an EIN. Once you have secured this number contact a local credit union (or bank) and ask to speak to a representative about opening an organizational checking account.

A. Grants and Foundations

There are books and manuals devoted to writing grant applications and finding foundations to fund your cause. Check your local library and consult the Foundation Center website.

The turnaround time for most grants is somewhere between 6 months to a year. By the time you research grants and receive and decipher the application forms, the seasonal application deadline may have recently passed and the next cycle may not start for another 6 months. Some grants require that you have a 501c3 tax-exempt status, which is a bit of an ordeal to get and not a short term endeavor. However, it is relatively easy to be sponsored by an already established 501c3 organization. Ask around to find one, usually a friendly church or larger political nonprofit group in your area can serve this purpose. Your sponsoring organization is entitled to a cut of any grants you receive, usually 5-10 percent.

One angle to take in applying grants is that you are supplying a social service by sending educational materials into prisons. Other grants are specifically oriented towards groups working for social change. Simply sending books to prisons may not be the type of change these grant funds fund. If you can document your group’s involvement with death penalty abolition, control unit monitoring or similar issues, you may make a more convincing case.

Grants are not the ideal way to finance your operation initially. Make it a point to learn about grants so you can apply in the future, but don’t expect to raise money this way in your first year. Save any newspaper articles that feature your group or cover any events you hold, and keep a scrapbook of any photos, flyers or pamphlets related to your group. These will come in handy when you need documentation for your grant applications.

B. Donation from Individuals and Groups

Besides donations of books, you also can seek financial contributions to support your work. Often people want to give money because they believe in what you are doing and not because it’s a tax write off.

Sometimes donors will want the contribution to be tax deductible. In this case you must be a nonprofit organization or have a nonprofit organization as your sponsor. The legal designation is 501c3 and it is from the IRS. All donors wanting a tax deduction must write the check out to your sponsoring 501c3 organization. Work out with your sponsor how often they will process checks and what percentage they will keep, typically 5-15 percent. Donors will need a receipt and thank you note. You can write them but they must mention the name of the sponsor who received the donation on your behalf.

Some book donors may also want receipts to make their book donations tax deductible. Ask them to estimate the value of their book donation and promptly send them a receipt in that amount. In all cases, you should send a note of thanks. Create a database in which to record their contact information and the type of their donation.

As previously mentioned, prisoners will occasionally make small donations. These are usually in the form of a few stamps enclosed with their letter. Stamps are the least cumbersome currency for prisoners who want to make donations. Normally $5-10 is the most to be expected directly from a prisoner. Their relatives on the outside may send more. If you are many months behind in answering requests it is a good idea to send prisoners a note to let them know you’ve received their stamps or check. Otherwise, be sure to thank them when you send their books.

C. Book Sales

Book sales are a good way to reduce your overstock of seldom requested subjects and big hardbacks too costly to send. Don’t expect to sell everything you put up for sale. The key to a successful book sale is getting the word out that you are having it. Try to hold it outside on a sunny day at a place and time with a lot of foot traffic.

D. Fundraisers

These events serve to raise money while also giving you an opportunity to tell people about your program. A speaking appearance by an author or speaker on the prison industrial complex, racism, and other intersectional issues makes a good program. A debate, film screening, bingo game, cabaret, music show are other possibilities.

Ensuring that the event runs smoothly, has a good turnout, and raises money is no small undertaking. Last minute problems can arise, such as discovering that the venue requires you to have insurance or that the PA system is inadequate. If you haven’t done this type of thing before, find someone who has, or start with a small event before getting more ambitious.

Pack-a-thons are a great fundraiser as you can both make money for your organization and get caught up in answering requests. Pick a weekend during which your organization will pack books for twelve hours each day. Next, prepare instruction kits for the packers. Each participant should secure pledge money with donors pledging a flat fee per hour and contributed to the organization prior to the actual pack-a-thon so that you can use the money to send the packages. Packers can have pledges from many different people. You can also get local businesses to donate food and prizes. As a result of an annual pack-a-thon you can build relationships with new donors and volunteers, raise money for your prison book program, and send out more than one month’s worth of book requests.

E. In Kind Donations

Support for your operation doesn’t need to be a direct monetary contribution. There are many other ways people can lend a hand to help your cause.

Besides books, be on the lookout for donations of shelves, packing tape, pens and markers, filing cabinets, desks, access to a copy machine or a used copy machine.People can also help with tasks including transporting packages to the post office, picking up donations of books, writing grant proposals, planning and handling of fundraising and publicity events, photocopying, and keeping your book inventory properly sorted and categorized.

Sometimes you run out of money or volunteers, but you never seem to run out of books. Your books can be used as a barter commodity. One of the attractions for volunteers is being able to pick through a large selection of titles and borrow some of interest. We do not discourage anyone helping to pack books from borrowing them; it’s the least we can do considering the project couldn’t operate without their labor. It is possible to work out some creative deals to save time and money, such as someone with a car provides transportation in exchange for library privileges on the book inventory, or the person providing building space gets to pick out several nice hardbacks every month in lieu of rent.

Forward  to III. The Process
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