Perspectives of Foundation Stakeholders

To develop a robust archive, both leadership and front-line staff must put their weight behind the effort. An archiving program needs support from top executives to ensure adequate resources and to make the work a priority. At the same time, the people doing the day-to-day work of the foundation need to recognize the historical value of the records they are creating and participate in identifying and preserving them. With support on these two fronts, an archive can be built that helps the foundation tell its story in a way that benefits present and future staff and grantees as well as outside historians and researchers.


One imperative to building an archive or records management program that colleagues at the meeting agreed on was the need for strong support from leadership. Justine Greenland Duke of the Mastercard Foundation said, "I have learned the hard way not to proceed without it. I'm not flexible about that any longer. If there isn't buy-in at the top, then I don't proceed. I keep the plan in my back pocket, but I save it for that day when somebody says, 'Oh, wouldn't it be great if?' And I can say, 'yes, it would, and I've got the plan for that.'"

Strong support from leadership, demonstrated in Ford Foundation President Darren Walker's opening remarks at the 2019 meeting, can bring resources for technology and staff. (See Section 2 for the full text of Darren Walker's remarks.) Presidents, CEOs, vice presidents, and other well-respected staff can show they value records hygiene activities by directing staff to set aside time for organization-wide records management and clean-up days and by supporting mandatory training.

Leaders also model behaviors such as encouraging the use of the archive to research foundation history and endorsing tours of the archive as part of new staff on-boarding. Hilary Pennington, executive vice president of programs at the Ford Foundation showcased several examples from Ford's archive to illustrate how a well-tended archive helps leaders learn from the past:

A foundation like ours comes under scrutiny at various points in our history. It's important to understand how we handle that when it happens, because it has happened, and it continues to happen. We responded to a series of Congressional inquiries that began in the 1950s that are legendary in the lore of philanthropy. By going back into our archive, we were able to understand how our leaders thought we were supposed to answer those kinds of questions and how they represented what philanthropy is in the broader society. And we go back to that now. As recently as the 2000s, we've had challenges to our grantmaking in Palestine, we've had the Attorney General of the State of Michigan question whether we were adequately investing in Michigan, we've had a series of issues and challenges in India. So that legacy and those archives give us a through-line, and they give us guidance today for how to adjust to things that continue to happen.

Leadership can and should be involved in making decisions about what records belong in the archive. In the opening panel discussion, "Strategies for Successful Communication to your Stakeholders," panelists discussed the challenges of retaining or destroying certain types of records. (A complete list of sessions and panelists is available in Appendix A.) On one side of the equation is the need to protect the foundation from risk by adhering to compliance requirements, data privacy laws, and the risk of litigation, and on the other side is the need to preserve the foundation's history even if records will not be open to the public for ten or twenty years. Robin Krause, the attorney on the panel, said that from her perspective, the same document can be inculpatory or exculpatory depending on who is using it. She posed and then went on to answer the following question: "On balance is it better to have that document or not have that document? And I think that most lawyers would say it's always better to have the document. The balance goes to preservation." Pennington added that "we are in a moment where risk and compliance predominate, and it is really helpful to be reminded of how dangerous that can be. And I think at the highest level in foundations there probably needs to be much more debate and discussion about the consequences of that in the long run."

Beyond the question of risk, trustees, senior leadership and even founders can have a hand in shaping the foundation's archive. At the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, "the trustees, many of them lawyers, have enthusiastically embraced the idea of telling the foundation's story and sharing its impact," said Lori Eaton, the foundation's consulting archivist. "Making the trustees aware of archival best practices has helped them feel confident in the archive the foundation is building. We're also looking for ways to capture their institutional knowledge and passion for the foundation's work through interviews and storytelling, giving them some skin in the game."

At the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies (MACP), Margaret Cargill, the founder, created a vision statement that became a model for how the foundation would capture its history going forward. "When Margaret was developing the estate plan for her philanthropy after her death, our leadership felt it was really important to have an impartial third party come in and document Margaret's wishes," said Stephanie Hislop, project manager at MACP. The consultants captured what she wanted to support, what she didn't want to support, and asked clarifying questions. Not only has the resulting report guided strategic direction but it also provided a model for future legacy projects that Hislop said are "aimed at capturing and documenting not only our history but also our culture and important organizational milestones."

Front line staff

Every person working on behalf of a foundation has a hand in creating that foundation's history. When all staff members, from a long-serving vice president to the newest communications officer, understand the legacy they are leaving through the records they create, the archive will be strengthened. By engaging with front line staff about the archival records they create, as well as the ways in which these records can inform their work, archivists can plant the seeds for a richer trove of records that can hold a more nuanced history of the foundation.

Michael Walter at International House and Sam Markham of the Winthrop Group worked together to build an archive for the 100-year-old institution. Two key takeaways from their project were trust and open dialog with staff and other stakeholders. "I've come to the belief that it's almost impossible to have too many conversations with stakeholders to figure out what matters to them and to speak their language," said Walter. Having multiple conversations helped them identify potential issues before they became deep-rooted problems. When an unexpected opportunity arose to speak to a large group of International House alumni, they jumped at the chance. As past archival records creators, this group has a vested interested in a well-maintained archive and a strong voice that can influence current organizational leaders.

Staff with experience as researchers in archives can share their perspective with peers and become champions of the foundation's archiving initiative. Marion Greenup, of the Simons Foundation, described a director whose research into the history of how a particular math institute was built took him into public archives. As part of a monthly staff meeting, he presented his research to the entire foundation. His presentation "focused on the importance of archiving material in addition to telling the stories he wanted to tell," said Greenup.

Elizabeth Stauber, archivist for the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, developed educational programs for staff to help them "become a self-reflective organization that is transparent not only to the public but also to ourselves." She began leading quarterly lessons for staff about past programs that the foundation had funded and how they succeeded or failed. "Now, many of our program officers have a unique understanding of the history of our foundation and mental health in Texas," said Stauber. "They can apply that context with care to the program and communities with which they work today."

Not only are foundation staff consumers of the stories in their archive, but they are also curators of their own story in relationship to the foundation. This concept was brought to life by Amy Gipson of the Gates Foundation and Jaimie Quaglino of the Gates Archive, during the Collaborative Case Studies session. The pair described a visit to the Gates Foundation India office, one of eight regional offices around the world. A primary goal of the trip was to "capture history in the making," which in real terms meant uncovering inactive program records and making sure staff at the office understood the value of transferring records to the archive. As with Walter and Markham at International House, the Gates team realized upon arrival in Delhi that they would need to be flexible. "Our plans changed as we learned about the office and its records, and our scope of what we were there to collect expanded and shifted," said Gipson. They heard staff stories informally in the lunchroom, they asked about how staff saved their files and records, and they conducted formal interviews with staff about their experience working in the India office. Gipson and Quaglino said that stronger relationships and personal connections with foundation staff were among the notable outcomes of their visit. These are two characteristics that are important for building a vital, well-used archive that reflects the stories of all stakeholders who contributed to the foundation's history.