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Carnegie Center nears its $1 million goal

Even in these tough economic times as many non-profits are struggling, Lexington's Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning is wrapping up a $1 million fund-raising campaign.

From Eagle Scouts who took on fund-raising as a project, to well-heeled philanthropists who wrote big checks, the fund-raising effort rallied some 400 community donors to save the center, which provides a variety of reading, writing and job-skills classes in a historic building by Gratz Park.

A few years ago things looked grim.

In 2003, then-Mayor Teresa Isaac slashed the budget of the literacy center, cutting the city's $250,000 annual contribution. Since its inception in 1992, the center had operated as a "satellite" agency to the city, with the government supplying nearly all of its funding. The city also handled paying the center's bills and meeting payroll. The announcement about funding cuts was made in April. The doors were set to close in June.

But petitions were circulated, letters were written and some 500 people rallied in support of the center, and a compromise was struck. The city, the Lexington Public Library and the William S. Farish Fund committed to providing $100,000 each for five years in order to give the center a chance to come up with a plan to be financially independent. (The majority of the city's contributions were in-kind services, such as maintaining the building and grounds.)

"As traumatic as it was at the time, I think it has had many positive impacts," said Jan Isenhour, executive director. Being a satellite agency, she said, "was kind of like being a teenage child, financially." The shift to independence, she said, "really brought the organization into the adult world."

In addition to the fund-raising effort, the city will continue to help maintain the building and honor a lease that lets the center use the building for $10 a year. The public library and the Farish foundation have agreed to provide, over the next three years, $65,000, $55,000 then $45,000. But it's unclear what they will contribute after that, said development director Jennifer Mattox.

The fund-raising effort began in earnest in 2006, said Mattox. Most of the fund-raising was done the old-fashioned way, mostly word of mouth and friends asking friends to make a donation. There was a small letter-writing campaign, she said. Aside from one large reception, Mattox said, the organization thought that personal outreach trumped fancy fund-raising events.

The shift from not fund-raising to asking for money was a challenge, said board member Kelly Flood. But, "there is an enormous good will in the community for this place. What we hadn't done was simply ask for support," she said.

One key was not just asking for money but concentrating on letting people know all of the programs the center offers, she said.

"One of the mistakes non-profits make most often is not talking about mission but money. What you have to talk about is what you are doing for the community."

From tutoring children to providing free books to helping adult workers learn new skills, the center's many offerings make it easy for people to find a program they wanted to support, said Mattox.

The historic architecture of the building also helped entice donors, she said. As other historic buildings in downtown Lexington are being torn down, the Carnegie Center remains. Erected in 1902, the building is one of the only original Carnegie libraries still used for a literary mission, Mattox said. (Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie built more than 2,500 libraries around the country.)

"People want to come here," said Flood. "When they walk up those steps into that marble building, it's such a rare experience of architectural excellence."

As of the latest accounting, the official total pledged stands at $979,000, said Isenhour. She's confident that by the end of the year, the $1 million mark will be reached. It is enough to cover operating and program costs for three years.

But, she said, the newly independent center will do what all non-profits do — begin to raise money all over again.