This publication represents an abridged, synthesized version of the panels, presentations, and table discussions that took place at the Advancing Foundation Archives: Advocacy, Strategies, and Solutions conference, held on June 12, 2019, in the Mandela Room of the Ford Foundation headquarters in New York City. The conference was co-sponsored by the Rockefeller Archive Center, Ford Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, and it was the first convening in nearly three decades to address the importance of managing, preserving, and providing access to foundation records and archives.

Though more than one hundred people attended, many more stand to benefit from a resource that captures key learnings. To present the meeting in text form, the editors condensed one hundred pages of transcripts, fleshed out concepts where needed, and gathered additional resources for readers who wish to delve deeper into a particular topic. Most of the quotations are taken verbatim from the conference transcripts, but some have been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.

As Jack Meyers, president of the Rockefeller Archive Center, said in his closing remarks at the meeting, foundation archivists now take it as a given that the records they collect have value. Nonetheless, there are other decision makers (and readers) to whom a clearer picture of the value of foundation archives might be useful. Imagine that a program officer is researching a new grantmaking program to support young artists, and a long-time staff member mentions a similar program funded in the early 1990s. If that foundation has maintained an archive over the years, the program officer will be able to find notes, board documents, approved grants, and even evaluations that will clarify how that program was developed, what worked, and perhaps most importantly, what didn't. If the foundation does not have an archive, the program officer may be able to hunt down some of the relevant documents but, more than likely, pertinent records will be in boxes tucked away in offsite storage, buried in a network shared drive, or saved in file formats that are no longer readable by today's systems. Research scenarios like this may play out across the organization, from the CEO who is writing a speech and wants to know what a long-ago predecessor was thinking on a particular topic, to a financial analyst developing a report on grant payout trends over the life of the foundation. As John Craig wrote in 2012, "Archival records enrich the research base for consideration of foundations' future directions and help ensure program continuity. The lessons from earlier experience that they hold can help prevent strategic and tactical mistakes by current and future foundation managers."

A well-managed archive supports staff by providing institutional knowledge that helps move the foundation forward. In a similar way, providing public access to a foundation's archive can help strengthen ties to the communities it serves. Foundations that believe in transparency and make the decision to open their archive to the public demonstrate a willingness to be held accountable for their impact on society. Even though foundations may restrict records for five, ten, even twenty-five years before access is granted, by building an archive they are committing to preserving records that contain unique information about the communities, issues, people, and organizations they fund through their grantmaking. When those records are open, researchers benefit from a rich, well-preserved store of information about the history of philanthropy. "In the hands of good researchers, the records of foundations can provide guidance for future generations in tackling new and continuing social problems" (Craig, 2012). Historians conducting research in foundation archives have been able to track the birth of educational broadcast television through the records of the Ford Foundation, the ebb and flow of healthcare funding in rural communities through the records of the Commonwealth Fund, and the international response to the humanitarian crisis in the South Caucasus in 1915-16 through the records of the Near East Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

The information professionals and foundation staff who gathered in New York on June 12, 2019, shared the belief that creating, preserving, and providing access to foundation records are critical activities, whether they are done to provide access only to staff or to external researchers as well.

In addition to a shared belief in the value of foundation archives, attendees also shared challenges:

  • Which documents, digital and physical, should be classified as records, and where should they be stored?
  • Which records, digital and physical, have archival value, and how and where should they be preserved?
  • What risks are foundations taking by preserving certain types of records, and what are the risks if they don't?
  • Whose history is being erased by deleting records that contain evidence of the foundation's work?
  • How do foundations responsibly share their archives publicly yet respect the privacy of staff, grantees, and, in some cases, founders?

These are among the questions that meeting participants discussed throughout the day, and those conversations are synthesized in this publication in the following sections:

  • Perspectives of Foundation Stakeholders describes how stakeholders in foundations engage (or do not engage) with their archive. This includes board members and foundation executive leaders, but also staff across the foundation who often are the most prolific record creators.
  • Motivating Issues and Events examines some of the scenarios that often give rise to the idea of building an archive – a major anniversary, a retiring board chair, a litigation threat – how attendees wrestled with those ideas, and where they turned for help.
  • Records Management and Archives discusses information management, from documents, to email, to audio and video files, to data sets, and how information managers are building infrastructure to handle the tidal wave of digital files.
  • Internal Access and Storytelling explores how describing and applying metadata to records can help staff more easily find and use their archive to inform their work.
  • Public Access and Storytelling describes how foundations make their history accessible to the public, from exhibits, to published histories, to transitioning their archive to an external repository.

Along the way, readers will find anecdotes, tips, and resources that colleagues shared through presentations, as well as in conversations during and after the conference.

The information assets that are created and received by staff at a foundation come in many shapes and sizes. Think paper-based text files, but also emails and their attachments, videos, images, audio recordings, social media posts, web sites, data sets, computer code, and formats of the future that have not been conceived of yet. The processes involved in managing records and archives have a sifting effect on the flow of assets in an organization. Not every email, report, or spreadsheet is a record, not every record is archival. With that said, here are a few definitions:

  • Record: Information created, received, and maintained as evidence and as an asset by an organization or person, in pursuit of legal obligations or in the transaction of business. 1
  • Records management: Field of management responsible for the efficient and systematic control of the creation, receipt, maintenance, use, and disposition of records, including processes for capturing and maintaining evidence of and information about business activities and transactions in the form of records. 2
  • Archival record: Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs that are preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator. 3

Information governance and knowledge management are two other terms often associated with records management and archives. Information governance is a broader term that encompasses an organization's policies and systems that guide what information is managed, where, and for how long. Records management and archives programs are often a subset of an organization's information governance plan. Knowledge management was once limited to the management and use of information created by an organization, but more recently the concept of knowledge management has widened to include educational or informational resources from outside the organization such as databases, publications, and mined data. These two terms reach beyond the scope of discussions and presentations at the 2019 Advancing Foundation Archives meeting but are worthy of further exploration at future convenings.

  • 1 ISO 15489-1:2016(E). 3.14
  • 2 Ibid, 3.15
  • 3 https://dictionary.archivists.org/entry/archival-record.html