Motivating Issues and Events
Ask any archivist at the Advancing Foundation Archives meeting how their foundation's archive got started and you might hear a different germination story. Some might say it was a move to a new location that prompted a deeper look at what was in each closet and filing cabinet. Others might have begun as a rescue mission – boxes of old program officer diaries found gathering mold in a basement storage room. For still others it was an anniversary, retirement, or major milestone approaching. On the darker side, perhaps a looming litigation or a security breach. All these germination points have one thing in common, a ticking clock, something that brings urgency to the project.
While the motivation that a deadline or inciting incident brings can turn an idea into a thriving archive, starting an archiving program without an urgent deadline is certainly possible with the right combination of leadership interest and staff. Conversations about data security can point organizations toward an archiving process. A focus on accountability and transparency can also spark the growth of an archive.
Anniversaries, retirements, and other milestone events
An immoveable date on the calendar is one of the most common galvanizing events for a foundation archive. The date could be a major anniversary, the retirement of a beloved long-time staff or board member, or even a date with a moving company. While not every foundation contemplates a move, every foundation will face anniversaries on the horizon as well as staff and trustee departures.
Anniversaries planted the idea to start an archive for two of the presenters in the Getting It Done: Collaborative Case Studies Session as well. As Michael Walter from International House explained:
Despite accumulating almost one hundred years' worth of documents, International House has never had a formal archive program. In 2018, we began to rectify this. We engaged the Winthrop Group to help us get a better understanding of our options and potential long-term management and access to records. There were multiple drivers for this partnership. First, our endangered historical records had reached a state of criticality. Quite simply, the House's records were and are falling apart. Second, International House celebrates its centennial in 2024. There's a familiar theme going on here. Without access to our archive, there's no way we could celebrate this centennial properly. We would lose opportunities for reflection, context, and innovation, some of the most exciting aspects of a centennial.
Other foundation archives that began because of an anniversary on the horizon included:
- Hogg Foundation for Mental Health – Session presenter Elizabeth Stauber was hired as the Hogg Foundation's first archivist in 2015 as the foundation celebrated 75 years.
- Simons Foundation – Panelist Marion Greenup noted that as the foundation approached its 25th anniversary: "It seemed to me we had the opportunity to prospectively plan for how we were going to retain records and documents that were important to our science. Our foundation has a low-key approach to the foundation itself but not to its work, so the aim was not so much to tell the story of the foundation but to tell the story of the researchers we fund." With the foundation president as a champion, the Simons Foundation began to talk with senior program staff about what would be valuable to include and eventually launched a pilot project focused on archiving a major initiative.
Sometimes an anniversary can add a new element to an already established archive. Several presenters and panelists reported that oral history programs were developed or reinvigorated by anniversaries. Oral histories are a way to capture foundation stories that aren't easily recorded in documents that represent the day-to-day grantmaking work of the foundation.
- Mastercard Foundation – Justin Greenland Duke of the Mastercard Foundation and Eric Abrahamson of Vantage Point History developed an oral history project in response to the foundation's 10th anniversary.
- Rockefeller Brothers Fund – Hope Lyons said that the archives had begun doing oral histories around the 75th anniversary in 2015, with a focus on long-time board members and staff.
Oral history interviews with a CEO who is departing or trustee who is rotating off the board can document the "view from the top" perspective. Interviewing staff at any level of the organization who have witnessed tremendous change can be equally valuable. For example, Vicente Velasco, a Ford Foundation employee who had served in a variety of roles – including as a waiter in the private dining room – during his fifty years of service was set to retire. "We're doing an oral history of Vicente because he knows more truths that are more juicy, more interesting, than almost anyone else in the foundation, and wouldn't it be a shame to lose that," Hilary Pennington said. (Oral history resources are provided below)
As Michael Walter mentioned earlier, there are often multiple reasons that point toward the need for an archive. In the case of International House, physical records were at risk, however, it is important to keep in mind that digital records are even more fragile than paper documents.
Records at risk
Records at risk of damage, destruction, and loss took center stage at different times during the meeting and surfaced different points of view. "Risk" as a word had different meaning for different archives stakeholders. To some, loss of the historical record was the primary risk. This definition of loss was voiced most often by historians and professionals at the archival institutions charged with preserving the narrative of philanthropic organizations. To others, public access to sensitive records was the primary risk. Records managers and information managers inside foundations presented this as a concern that often came from the very top of the organization.
It is easy to find examples of risk to digital records. One needs to look no further than ransomware attacks, hacked email accounts, and database breaches. Senior leadership or staff may turn to records managers and archivists for help when urgent concerns about security of digital records arise. This sudden scrutiny puts records management and records retention policies in the spotlight. This can be a good thing for archives. Records management is covered in greater detail in Section 5, but for now the key point is that records managers and archivists can turn conversations about digital risk into discussions about organization-wide policies that improve both data security and identification of archival records.
One of the questions Bob Clark, director of archives at the Rockefeller Archive Center, asked panel participants was how their perception of risk was impacted by whether the records were paper or digital. Immediately the stories turned to the risks in digital records and specifically in email. Robin Krause, the attorney with Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler recounted a case that involved legal review of email:
I was recently working with an organization that gives a lot of grants to very active, political-leaning organizations, and one of their grantees is being investigated by a government agency. The foundation is not a target of the investigation but they're a grantor and they received an FBI subpoena for their grant files. We got their paper grant files, and they were what you would expect to see in a paper grant file. They had the original proposals and correspondence, the grant agreements, and then some reporting. And then we had to obtain their electronic email records for the grant. There were lots of emails that, because they were electronic, no one had printed them and put them in the grant file. I don't think they thought of them as part of the grant file, but they were producible under the subpoena. In the emails there were lots of conversations between the program officer and the grantee who is the target of this investigation.
Email was one of the most-discussed individual record types at the meeting and for good reason. Every staff member has a foundation email account, and each person may send and receive hundreds of emails a week. Some of that email may contain decisions, actions, and debates that document the foundation's work, yet mixed in with those archive-worthy messages are spam emails, mailing lists, daily news, and other transient information.
One meeting attendee said her organization's policy was to maintain all email forever, yet it was also policy not to archive email in bulk but rather to ask employees to save those they thought had value to a folder outside the email system. This presents a risk not only that the organization's email going back years could be hacked but also means only a small portion of those emails will be preserved in an archive.
In response to Bob Clark's digital risk question, Hilary Pennington of the Ford Foundation said that for many program officers, their email was their filing system. They kept a lot of their grant files in folders in their email account. Then two years ago, after a lot of discussion, Ford decided to move to a one-year retention – meaning email is deleted from the email application (Outlook, Gmail, etc.) one year after it was sent or received.
Each program officer had to think about what they're keeping in their email for the record and for the archive, enough to make sure they save it somewhere, because if they don't save it somewhere each year our system just empties out and deletes their email files. And that can be pretty freaky when you go to click that little folder where you saved everything about X and it's empty. It's a very challenging conversation, and we have done funny, witty, trainings for staff to try to help them understand this and to care about it and to pay attention. But it's an ongoing evergreen thing, and I don't think any of us probably have it exactly right.
Speaking for maintaining the historical record, Angela White, philanthropic studies archivist at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis, advocated for keeping email as an important record category with value for future historians.
It's scary for foundations and for other nonprofits to turn over their email for all of the reasons that we've heard, but without it the context is gone, and you can't really understand why decisions were made. Email is the most likely way that those discussions take place. It's really painful to me when I talk to an organization and explain the ways we can mitigate risk using redaction tools and still they say, 'we'll think about the email.' Please don't withhold the email. This is what historians want.
The email conversation is an opportunity to talk to stakeholders about building an archiving program that takes sensitivities to risk into consideration while at the same time preserving the historical context about the foundation's work.
Digital records aren't the only records at risk in a foundation. As the transition to digital systems evolved, physical records have been relegated to boxes in closets, filing cabinets, offsite storage facilities, and even basements. Michael Walter and Sam Markham shared photos of the boxes they found in the basement of International House as they began the hunt for historical records. "They were disorganized, inaccessible, vulnerable to loss, and the vulnerability was actually something that was not hypothetical, it was real," Markham said. "There had been a flood right before the Winthrop project started that damaged a small group of records."
Anecdotal stories of records in basements popped up in the "Liberating Structures Lunch Session: 15% Solutions for Foundation Archives Advancement" as well. When Elizabeth Stauber was hired to start the Hogg Foundation Archives, she found "records hidden in the backs of filing cabinets, basements, closets, mysterious black holes that continue to pop up today." While not all these records may be at risk of physical destruction as the International House records were, they are useless to current and future foundation staff and to historians if they remain buried. Shining sunlight on those records can help mitigate the risk of damage and loss and give the foundation an opportunity to be more fully accountable for and engaged with its past.
Accountability and transparency
If foundation stakeholders manage risk by deliberating carefully about which records should be included in an archive, then taking the next step - to be accountable and transparent to internal and external stakeholders - will be less fraught. In his opening remarks, Darren Walker noted that "during a time of growing inequality and a time of growing cynicism about wealth and about even philanthropy, there is greater demand on us to be transparent in ways that we haven't had to be in the past."
Greater accountability and transparency can mean educating foundation staff about past work to improve the work they are doing today. This has been a focus of Stauber's work at the Hogg Foundation:
In order to do this [grantmaking] work honestly, we had to become a self-reflective organization that is transparent not only to the public but also to ourselves. What were we like as an organization fifty, sixty, and now coming up on eighty years ago? How have we evolved or changed, or have we changed at all? How do the projects, controversies, and successes from our history subtly influence the way that we operate today? It was time to understand and contextualize our history in order to make us better partners to our grantees and fellow Texas funders.
To promote the use of the newly established Hogg Foundation Archives and begin the work towards becoming a self-reflective organization, I began leading quarterly history lessons to our staff in 2017. My first lesson was on a program in the 1970s to bring mental health services to Zavala County at the same time as the rise of La Raza Unida, a Chicano nationalist organization that had prominence throughout Texas, California, and a few other southwestern states. Zavala County is located in south Texas, at the heart of a multi-million-dollar agri-business center where farmers grow crops such as spinach year-round. The agricultural economy brought in many laborers from Mexico, and over the decades this led to a majority population of Mexican American laborers and a minority population of White landowners. The main goal of La Raza Unida was to improve the economic, social, and political prospects of the majority Mexican American community that had historically been denied to them because of systemic reasons. Leaders in the party began applying for grants and attempting to bring jobs and social services to the neglected area. While La Raza Unida had political power in Zavala County, it was tenuous because they still did not have much economic power or broad influence throughout the state. The Zavala County Mental Health Outreach Program was largely considered a failure. The services we provided through it did not last long after the funding period ended. We were operating as outsiders, attempting to bring support to a community at war with each other. The program required community organizing, building trust, systemic change, and a long-term investment, none of which we were equipped to handle at the time. However, the challenges that arose during the program are challenges that we still face today as an organization and as a state: cultural competencies, addressing determinants of mental health – such as systemic racism and poverty – and community building. We must use our past failures and successes to inform our approaches to these continuing challenges, or we will fall into the same traps as we did before.
Hope Lyons of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund echoed Stauber's experience with making sure staff had access to the records they needed for the core business activity of grantmaking. "At the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, there is a deep family commitment to both recordkeeping and philanthropy, and transparency about those activities and the records are a key part of that."
Beyond meeting the needs of internal stakeholders, establishing an archive and providing a way for the public to access those records can demonstrate a foundation's willingness to be accountable for how it invests funds in social programs and communities. Foundations benefit from a tax protected status, which means some of those grantmaking dollars that would ordinarily be part of federal and state revenues are instead controlled by a private foundation. Foundations are required to file tax returns that disclose grantee organizations and dollar amounts on an annual basis but, unlike the finance, insurance, or health care industries, foundations are not required to provide additional reporting about how effective those grants were in improving the lives of people in the communities they aim to serve. As Darren Walker, Ford Foundation President, said in his remarks:
We remain the only sector in our society that does not have an external check on us. Yes, we have the IRS, and yes, we have regulations and our general counsel keeps us out of trouble, but I worked at a bank, I worked at a nonprofit. Every day there was an external pressure on me and the organizations I worked for to deliver for customers, clients, people living in Harlem who we were there to serve. Every day I felt that pressure. If we're to be honest with ourselves about philanthropy, we don't feel that pressure. We feel a different pressure. A passion to do justice in the world and to make a difference, and to cure and solve some of these seemingly intractable problems. But it really takes a lot of self-generated determination to be transparent, to monitor one's institutions, and to really take impact seriously. We can't take impact seriously if we don't take the preservation of our history seriously and if we're not willing to invest in it.
Placing archival records in the hands of the public sends a clear signal that the foundation takes accountability and transparency seriously. It is a judgement day of sorts for any organization that opens its records to the public and asks: Did we make the best grants we could? Could we have done better? Did we have the impact we hoped we would? Luckily, there are consultants and archival repositories with knowledgeable staff who can help guide foundations as they build their archives and take the first steps toward opening them to the public.
Where to turn for help
Many people at the meeting who were charged with developing an archive or a records management program emphasized their reliance on outside experts. Every foundation will need to develop its own mix of internal and external support for archives and records, but it may be useful to consider a few of the models represented by the presenters and panelists.
- Internal records management staff and internal archives staff: At the Gates Foundation most staff supporting the records management (Gates Foundation) and archive (Gates Archive) are employed directly by one of these two organizations.
- Internal records management staff and external archives support: the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund both have internal staff who support records management and archiving across their organization but work with the Rockefeller Archive Center to preserve their archives and provide access to records that will be made public.
- External records management and external archives support: Like many small foundations that are reluctant to add staff, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation contracted with an archives consultant to establish a records management and archives program. After the foundation spends down, it expects to donate its records to an external repository to facilitate public access.
Archival repositories such as the Rockefeller Archive Center and the Philanthropy Archives of the Ruth Lilly Special Collections & Archives at IUPUI are excellent places to turn to for expert advice on how to proceed with an archiving or records management project. An external archival repository collects the records of other organizations, preserves them, and makes them available to researchers. (See Section 7 for more on working with external repositories.) Archivists at these repositories are generous in sharing their expertise with organizations even if there is no formal donor relationship, as Stephanie Hislop, project manager at Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, found:
The team at Rockefeller Archive Center has really helped to inspire us on our journey, in addition to giving us advice. Sometimes I just call them in when we need kind of a pep talk to get re-energized. This began in 2016 when the head of RAC came and spoke with our leadership to help them flesh out their goals and their vision for archives at MACP. And that went so well that at the end of that year, we asked the RAC team to come back and do a day-long session with our staff, where we invited representatives from different functional areas all across the building to come in and talk about archives.
Many small to mid-size foundations seek out records management or archives consultants who work with existing staff to establish or refresh their programs. Professional associations can be a great resource for finding a consultant.
- Society of American Archivists: Directory of Archival Consultants
- Association of Records Managers & Administrators (now ARMA International): ARMA Buyer's Guide
Another source of information and inspiration is networking with other archivists. Nicki Garces, archivist and records manager with the Consuelo Foundation, found mentors to be instrumental in building knowledge:
The Association of Hawaii Archivists and the Society of American Archivists have been very supportive. I've been taking professional development courses and talking with people to find out best practices. I would also give a shout out to Jaimie Quaglino of the Gates Archive. She's been my mentor for over two years.
In addition to the foundations noted in this report, many other foundations have archivists on staff and have well-developed archival programs. A little sleuthing can turn up one similar to yours in size or grantmaking focus with staff who may offer support. Foundation archivists and records managers are a small community, and everyone is eager to offer resources, share their own experience, or form a working group to solve a common problem.
In the forward of this report, Lori Eaton mentioned the hard-to-find Establishing a Foundation Archives (1991) publication as a place she turned for support. This publication is now available in digital form on IssueLab (https://www.issuelab.org/), a non-paywalled hosting site for research products published by social sector organizations around the world. Other places to look for published research include:
- The Foundation Review (https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/tfr/): Peer-reviewed journal of philanthropy, written by and for foundation staff and boards, and those who work implementing programs.
- Center for Effective Philanthropy (https://cep.org/): Provides data, feedback, programs, and insights to help individual and institutional donors improve their effectiveness.
Whatever instigating event or issue arises for your foundation, seize the day. Start with a call to a local repository or a friendly foundation that already has a robust program established to collect archival materials. Gather advocates internally and begin crafting the case for building an archiving program. Once you have the buy-in you need, the next section provides guidance on how to approach records management and archives as integral parts of information management.