Public Access and Storytelling

The obvious reason researchers might turn to foundation archives is to understand the history of philanthropy, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Skim the Rockefeller Archive Center's storytelling platform Re:source and you'll see researchers focused on a wide range of topics – public health, social justice, the environment, art and culture, and the list goes on.

As James Allen Smith said in his 1991 essay in Establishing Foundation Archives, "foundations often house material that is exceedingly important for understanding the nation's social history, intellectual developments in various academic fields, as well as the genesis of many important public policy initiatives." John Craig expanded on this point in his 2012 white paper: "In the hands of good researchers, the records of foundations can provide guidance for future generations in tackling new and continuing social problems."

In short, what a foundation learned through its grantmaking can have exponential impact when a researcher combines it with what other foundations with a similar focus learned. Researchers can analyze data and records from multiple sources and present what they found in a way that educates the public and informs future decision making. Making the leap from an internal archive to sharing records with the public may seem daunting, but there are experts available to help.

Archival Repositories

Archival records are managed by many different types of institutions. Colleges and universities often collect archival material in a special collections library that houses manuscripts, papers of individuals, and records of organizations. The Ruth Lilly Special Collections & Archives at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) has a particular focus on records that document the history of the philanthropic tradition, and their collections support student researchers at IUPUI's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Angela White, Philanthropic Studies archivist at IUPUI, described her interactions with both donors and researchers:

I spend a lot of time with potential collection donors, with current collection donors, helping them to understand why they might want to preserve their history and what use they can get out of it once they have decided to preserve that history.

I have three main categories of external researchers. People who are interested in a particular foundation; some of that is internal around anniversaries, but there are a lot of people who come through the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy who are interested in doing a deep dive into a particular one. There are researchers who are interested in mainly grantees, so the actual foundation interest is sort of adjacent. And then we have researchers who are interested in data sets of multiple foundations.

A foundation may want to select a college or university library that collects records on a topic that reflects the foundation's grantmaking focus or in the same city or state. The latter may be an especially appropriate choice for a community foundation that makes gifts to local organizations. By choosing a local college or university library, the records of both the foundation and its grantees remain in the community. If the foundation was created by an individual with close ties to his or her alma mater, that college or university library may be designated as the repository of the foundation's records. The Atlantic Philanthropies were donated to Cornell University Special Collections in part because its founder, Chuck Feeney, was an alumnus.

Other institutions that collect and preserve archival collections include public libraries, historical societies, and cultural institutions. The Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), one of the meeting's organizers, is unique in that it is an independent operating foundation established to serve as a public archival repository for the records of philanthropy. Bob Clark, director of archives at RAC, recounted how his institution evolved:

We were originally founded in 1974 by the Rockefeller family and several Rockefeller-founded organizations: the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Rockefeller University. Over the succeeding decades, though, our collections have vastly grown in scope to include such representative organizations as the Ford Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Luce Foundation, Social Science Research Council, Russell Sage, the Commonwealth Fund, and many more. In addition to gathering and preserving philanthropic records, we also make them accessible to public research. We host around four hundred onsite researchers per year and respond to over two thousand email inquiries per year, and we have an innovative research and education team led by my colleague and friend, Barb Shubinski, that assists foundations in leveraging their history. And we also are using innovative new technologies to make sure the stories of philanthropy get out to the broader public.

Talking with other foundations that have a similar grantmaking or geographic focus is one way to begin building a list of potential repositories. Consider local colleges and universities, regional historical societies, or large public libraries. Once you have a list, you will want to have a conversation with each repository about whether they will be a good fit for the foundation's records. Some repositories may decide that philanthropic records are not within the scope of records they typically collect. Though Cornell Libraries doesn't have a specific focus on philanthropic records, as mentioned earlier, it is interested in the records of the university's alumni. In her presentation, Phoebe Kowalewski, Atlantic Philanthropies archivist, described how the foundation's records found a home at Cornell:

In the case of Atlantic Philanthropies, initial discussions began two years prior to the first shipment of records to the archives. Cornell's proposal for project-planning funding was submitted and approved in 2014. In January 2015, an archives consultant was hired by Cornell to survey records, both paper and electronic, at the New York, Bermuda, Belfast, and London offices. As a result, she drafted an in-depth processing plan, and so by September 2015, Cornell was awarded the grant to house, process, and promote Atlantic's archives. In 2016, a deed of gift was drawn up and signed by Atlantic and Cornell staff. In addition to providing the transfer of title, the deed of gift also outlined the physical transfer of the collection as well as listed types of records to be excluded, included, or restricted. It is important to remember that even though an archive receives your materials, it does not mean it will make those materials immediately available to researchers. The deed of gift also established the Archives Advisory Committee in order to continue the dialogue between Cornell and Atlantic, and we meet up with them twice a month, now we're down to once a month, and we have in-person meetings once a year, so close, close communication.

The agreement Kowalewski mentioned above is a donor agreement, which transfers title and other rights to the archival repository. Some foundations prefer to sign a deposit agreement, which transfers physical or digital records into the care of the repository but does not transfer title. Either type of agreement can incorporate embargo periods that restrict access to certain record groups for a specific period of time. As Kowalewski also noted, it costs money to process and describe, permanently store and preserve, and provide public access to the foundation's records. Many foundations support the archival institution with a one-time grant or series of grants that cover the costs of archival services and long-term storage.

There are several reasons a foundation may choose to place their archival records in the care of an archival repository. Mediating public access to those records once any restrictions have expired may be primary. Libraries like Cornell and IUPUI and repositories like the Rockefeller Archive Center not only field enquiries and facilitate research by helping researchers find primary sources to support their work, but they also promote the collections in their archives to the public so researchers will know the foundation's records are available for study. These institutions have reading rooms where researchers can come to view physical records and have professional archivists and reference staff who are knowledgeable about all the records in their collections and can help researchers zero in on exactly what records they would like to view.

Hilary Pennington related how the demand for information about the Ford Foundation's history began to overwhelm staff:

The values of our foundation have always been open, accessible, and available for history, as you heard Darren just say. We had a policy, starting in the 1970s, to allow the, quote, "freest possible access to and use of Foundation information without infringing on the rights of the person who created that information or hampering the current work of the Foundation." What we found was that we couldn't manage the degree of interest. There were so many researchers coming from outside the foundation that there came to be about a one-year waiting list for them just to have access to what they wanted, and we weren't adequately staffed to fulfill that. So, in 2011, we made the decision to move our archive to RAC, which is a great decision. I think that that has been very, very good for external researchers and it's part of this family of collections that I think, from a research point of view, will probably make it so much easier to look at what we do, together with the work the Rockefeller Foundation or RBF [Rockefeller Brothers Fund] does.

Another key reason to place records in the care of a professionally managed and staffed repository relates to storage. Most repositories store record collections in secure vaults with climate control systems that are optimized based on the format of the records. For example, film and photographic negatives require different storage conditions than paper records. Records are monitored for preservation issues and any damage is remediated or repaired to ensure the long-term use of the records. Repositories also preserve digital records according to best practices, which goes far beyond folders in a shared drive or in cloud storage. (See Section 5 for more on digital preservation.)

Digital Access to Public Archives

It hasn't always been easy for researchers to find foundation records, but that has changed thanks to technology. Now most collecting institutions describe their collection on websites and feature them in blogs or online exhibits. Aggregated library catalogs include entries for archival collections alongside books and journals, making them easier for students doing research to discover. Often an Internet search can return results for archival collections that are publicly accessible on the web. As Bob Clark noted:

Web access is creating opportunities for broader access, so it's not just whether you can afford to come to the Archive Center or to Indiana to research, that in and of itself is limiting your ability to do research. Even if you're sitting on your couch in Beijing you can have the same research experience as if you were coming to [the Rockefeller Archive Center in] Westchester County or to [the Lilly Library at IUPUI in] Indiana.

These online finding aids allow researchers to narrow their search based on how the records are described. Researchers can request that a physical document be digitized, and a copy sent electronically. For certain records, such as photographs or documents that are in the public domain, users may be able to download copies directly from the repository website.

As with any technology, understanding how to use it has a learning curve. Eric Abrahamson, historian with Vantage Point History, voiced his concerns:

One of the things that we're finding as archives move into the digital sphere is the challenge of building the kind of narrative that Hilary Pennington talked about. All your collecting really, the whole point of most of it, is to be able to generate narrative and storytelling. One of the things we're discovering is that in the digital world there is obviously an ocean of information compared to what existed in the past. It's very granular. It's much less synthesized than it was in the past. I'm not sure historians are being trained to make the transition. I think lawyers are being trained how to work with this information, but I don't think historians are being trained about how to work with digital archives.

In response, Bob Clark described the approach the Rockefeller Archive Center is taking:

What we try to do, as we're organizing digital records, is kind of bring you back to that aggregate level with descriptive work that can enhance your research process, so that as a researcher, you can get to know the records and know the terminologies well enough to help guide your research through these granular records.

Organizations focused on enhancing knowledge in the social sector are also collecting and organizing archival records across multiple organizations and making them available in one place. IssueLab by Candid, is one of these. This aggregated collection of foundation reports, impact studies, and datasets can be searched on several facets such as program area, geographic location, publication date, document type, and more. Lisa Brooks, IssueLab's co-founder, described the repository in more detail:

An institutional repository is a searchable collection of digital objects, so you can think of anything from an image file to a video or an audio file, on out to the kinds of publications that you probably funded – research studies, evaluations, this kind of thing. Users can access details about these objects, so there's some metadata describing the object, making sure that they understand what it is they're about to grab. Users can access the complete objects, and the collection is accessible to anyone at any time.

When a foundation sends a report to IssueLab for public access, IssueLab distributes those documents beyond its own website to a network that includes WorldCat, the world's largest library catalog. This wider distribution network means more historians and researchers will be able to find publicly available foundation reports, extending the impact of grant-funded research even further.

External Storytelling

A well-managed archive can be a tremendous asset when it comes time to tell the foundation's story. Some foundations publish books or host exhibits in public spaces. Others mount virtual exhibits, publications, and special websites. The Commonwealth Fund's Centennial website, for example, relies on the foundation's professionally managed archive to share the foundation's history online. Internal staff at the Fund turned to their archives, which had been donated to the Rockefeller Archive Center, and with the assistance of the RAC's Research and Education team, it uncovered the facts, photos, and other historical information that made this engaging website possible.

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund also built out a web-based timeline that illustrates their history. Hope Lyons described how that came about:

We have a platform that's kind of a website off of our website, if you will, that's focused exclusively on our history. It's a timeline that we worked with the [Rockefeller] Archive Center to develop.

The Simons Foundation also used its website as a platform to host a unique collection of video interviews that captures the lives of scientists in their own words. Marion Greenup explained the project this way:

We have an interest in the history of mathematics, for example, and a lot of very famous mathematicians are no longer [with us]. So, we've started a process, others have done it too, of doing very long, unstructured interviews to try to record this history. We then started trying to figure out how to present that in smaller bits and bytes and sessions.

The long, unstructured interviews were edited and divided into video chapters that were then published as a virtual exhibit on the Simons Foundation's website as Science Lives, a series of extended interviews with some of the giants of 20th-century mathematics and science.

Whatever form the story takes, project managers will need to build relationships within the foundation to ensure that leadership is on board with how the story will be told, both in terms of the medium to be used and the elements that will be included. Presenters during the "Collaborative Case Studies" session reflected on how they laid the groundwork for developing the story they wanted to tell, setting parameters and expectations. For example, Michael Walter at International House described internal conversations about how to share the organization's story publicly.

We've also had a lot of conversations about how we can bring the archives out of that room and create exhibitions around them. There have been a lot of conversations about how we can leverage these archives, and we're very fortunate to be able to house them at the House.

Eric Abrahamson of Vantage Point History talked about how important it is to help leadership see the benefit of telling a balanced story:

As storytellers and as historians who are often writing history that's sponsored, we often hear the concern, "Well, you're just writing what they want you to say." We work very hard not to do that, and one of the things that we work hard to do is to persuade executives that a complex story is better for their organization than a simple story of triumph, that failure is often more instructive than success, and that you can tell very difficult stories if you treat everybody with respect, allow different perspectives, and don't throw people under the bus. Most of the time you can tell a story that honors people in the process, even though there are winners and losers. And we find that most of the time if we work that through with the executives, we are able to tell what I think are remarkably candid stories.

Regardless of what shape the narrative takes, the stories foundations have to tell about their grantees, their impact, and themselves are an important part of social history. Foundations and the work they support have an impact on communities in so many ways. Everyone has experienced the power of story. When a foundation shares its work through storytelling, it is educating the public in a way that resonates.