Internal Access and Storytelling

All the effort a foundation invests in managing records and building an archive is rewarded when staff turn to the archive to learn from the past. In Section 4, Elizabeth Stauber of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health described how she created narratives from archival records to help staff understand the past and to plan for effective future programs. Stauber also noted that archives "are not just passive receivers at the end of the information lifecycle." As a locus of institutional memory, an archive can inspire a culture of learning and grow through research and storytelling. But to build narratives based on archival records, staff must be able to find the records they need.

Making the archive user friendly

A foundation's archive may hold records that describe a particular program in several different record groups. There might be a summary report in board meeting materials, documents in a grant file, and press releases about the program in communications. When brought together, these records provide rich context about a particular program. As Hope Lyons said about her early days at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund:

When I joined the RBF there was no shortage of records. There were tons of paper. The challenge that we found was our internal access to it and making sure those ho needed to access it for our core business, which is grantmaking, were able to get to it easily.

One way to help staff understand what records are in the archive is to create descriptive summaries, what archivists call finding aids. Marion Greenup at Simons Foundation reported that the foundation's archiving team is working toward "creating a very high-level archiving guide for our staff, and a way-finding document, some kind of finding guide, so they will know what's there." Finding aids can be narrative summaries that describe the records at the foundation level, the department level, and within a department at the program level. They can be detailed inventories that include the date or date range of the records, the number of files, what format they are in (paper, film, audio, digital files), who created them, and where they are located. These finding aids can be simple text documents or spreadsheets, or they may be more sophisticated databases or web-based catalogs, such as the Rockefeller Archive Center's DIMES online collection and catalog.

Applying consistent terminology when describing records in inventories and catalogs can make them even more findable. In digital systems, tagging or metadata can be employed to attach descriptive terms to grants, board minutes, videos, and photos. When consistent terminology is used, for example "health care," staff will be more likely to find all the records that are related to health care programs across all departments and record types. Some foundations may develop their own internal vocabulary – sometimes called a controlled vocabulary, a taxonomy, or a thesaurus. Others may use an industry standard such as the Philanthropy Classification System (PCS) developed by Candid. Stauber at the Hogg Foundation has begun to implement the PCS system:

The Philanthropy Classification System, or PCS, is a taxonomy that describes the work of grant makers, recipient organizations, and the philanthropic transactions between those entities. Applying this schema to our grant records solved several problems: a need for better metadata, improved searchability of our grant records, and an organized means to share our knowledge in projects with those outside of the foundation. The PCS answers the following questions about philanthropy: who – the population served; what – the subject and organization type; how – support strategy and transaction type; and where – geographic area served. Prior to implementation, the Hogg Foundation collected information about the who, what, how, and where, but it was embedded in our narrative reports and budgets. Information cannot be easily extracted and discovered in this format and did not allow us to track our records long term to analyze trends. We were able to refine the PCS to suit our specific needs and develop a way to integrate the collection of this information into our grants-management system. This information is now collected throughout the entire grant process from application to award and has been retroactively applied to grant records going back ten years by the team. We hope eventually to apply this to all of our grant records, going all the way back to 1940. We're not there yet. We plan to leverage this information structure and data to improve the searchability of the archive database, provide more specialized access to our past and current grantees on our website, as well as sharing our current grants data with Candid through their e-reporting program.

Phoebe Kowalewski, Atlantic Philanthropies archivist at Cornell University, has also seen the benefit of applying consistent vocabulary to describe records:

Each grant on Atlantic Philanthropies' publicly available database has been tagged with controlled vocabularies. Using their own personalized taxonomy, Atlantic classified each grant by the issue it addressed and the predefined somewhat broad program area that it historically fell under, such as Higher Education or Peace and Reconciliation. They also employed [PCS], which provides more granularity in describing each grant. In order to ease the transition of research from website to archives, we have been using these vocabularies to tag grant files in the collection's finding aid.

Learning from the archive

Improving the findability of records in the archive will strengthen the ability of staff to build accurate narratives based on those records. That might mean informing a deeper understanding of programmatic history, as Hope Lyons describes at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund:

We are in the midst of doing some anticipated programmatic expansion. We are looking into doing some work in Latin America, where we had been active many years ago, though it has been quite a while. All the staff who had worked on it had left, and so we didn't have institutional memory. Thankfully, we had the [Rockefeller] Archive Center and we had Barb Shubinski [director of research and education at the Rockefeller Archive Center], who went back to our files and was able do a really great overview of our history and work in Latin America, which could then inform us as we're thinking about our next steps with our grantmaking.

Or it might mean delving into the archive to help staff better understand donor intent and organizational history, as Stephanie Hislop and her colleagues have done at the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies (MACP) by generating books and presentations for staff use:

This focus on donor intent and documenting our history spawned a series of internal projects, some of which are called legacy projects internally, aimed at capturing and documenting not only our history but also our culture and these important organizational milestones. Note that all of these are internal documents, so they've been produced not to answer any external need but to support our own culture and knowledge of the organization. Our communications team produces several deliverables, including an annual highlights presentation for staff at the end of the year and a year-in-review book, which even though it just transitioned to being a quarterly digital publication, it seems a lot like a yearbook. So, it captures not just our grantmaking but also our organizational events, our culture; it has a history of all of the employees in it in the year. So, it's really a magical sort of book that we produce just for our own internal history.

At the Gates Foundation, the organization turned to the archive to create a timeline for the Gates Foundation's 15th anniversary and shared it with staff. As Jaimie Quaglino recounts:

It was a really interesting experience because we made that timeline based on our holdings, and some people looked at it and thought, "Well, wait. What about this event or that event?" We let them know, "If we don't have the records, we can't actually put it on the timeline." So, it became an interesting donor relations conversation, but ultimately, we now have this great record of the foundation's history that, as collections are added, we can augment it and continue to iterate on.

As Quaglino's example demonstrates, using archival records to tell stories to internal stakeholders can both educate people about the organization's history and create an opportunity to build the archive as people recognize that they may be able to point to records that should be included. As you'll hear in the next section, foundations can extend their impact even further when they share their archive beyond their own organizational walls.