Records Management and Archives

A vast amount of information – data, web content, images, videos, documents, email – flows through a foundation's systems. Some of this information is structured data in a content management systems, such as grants or financial data. Other types of data, such as files in shared drives and cloud storage, are unstructured. Some of this information is created by people employed by the foundation. Other information is created by people with relationships with the foundation, such as trustees or grantees. Still more information is created by people with no formal relationship to the foundation but is collected by foundation staff to help inform their work – books, journal articles, white papers, software code, data sets, images, audio recordings, and videos.

The professionals who attended the Advancing Foundation Archives meeting all have a specific relationship with the kinds of information described above. Some are information managers, who sift and organize information so that current staff can learn from it. Some are records managers, who maintain control of the information created to support the work of the foundation. Others are grants managers, who focus on a specific subset of records typically stored as structured content in a grants management system. Then there are the archivists, who work with the records manager to preserve, describe, and provide access to information that documents the foundation history. Finally, there are the historians and other researchers, who study the records in public archives and interpret the information they contain in new ways.

Records Management

For the foundation's information to be useful as an archive to both present and future staff and to researchers, it must first be identified, categorized, and organized. This is the work of records managers. They have two main tools at their disposal: a records management policy and a retention schedule.

Several presenters at the AFA meeting shared their experiences starting or revisiting a records management program. Lori Eaton initiated a records policy and retention schedule at the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation:

Developing a records-management policy and retention schedule was an important first step in determining which records belonged in the archive. Through the records-inventory process, we took the time to note who creates and collaborates on what kind of records, where the records are being saved, and whether they should be published to the website or preserved in perpetuity. Luckily, in many foundations there are natural dams in the landscape that are created during the ebb and flow of grantmaking. When a grant closes is a natural point to collect records for the archive. After a board meeting is another natural time on the calendar to push forward final documents to the archive.

A records retention schedule identifies each type of record the foundation creates, from board minutes to personnel records to grant agreements, and defines how it is stored and managed over time. Federal and state regulations specify how long certain kinds of records must be kept and when they can be dispositioned (destroyed or archived). As Amy Gipson of the Gates Foundation said, legal counsel can be an important partner for a records management program:

We just did a refresh this year, and I'm so happy to say that, after four years of working with our legal team, who owns our records management program, we have refreshed the policy to include preservation of records. This has been a lot of work and a great partnership between the archive and our legal team. We also refreshed our [records retention] schedule to list out every type of record that should also be transferred to the archive with disposition and guidance in that as well.

Robin Krause reinforced the value of working with legal counsel when developing records policies and deciding on retention:

As lawyers, so much of what we do with our clients is help them think about things like: What are the records you need to keep? What do you do when something happens with the records that you have? When should you and should you not be retaining versus destroying records? And then kind of falling into this landscape for the organizations we work with, which are large foundations, small foundations, public charities, all kinds of entities: How do you determine what is archival versus just a record? How do you help them think about what that process looks like?

Hope Lyons of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund described how staff participate in the records management process:

In terms of our approach to records management, as much as possible we make it so seamless that most people who are participants in the process don't know that they're doing it. They put this paper here, and then they upload the file there, and it's just integrated into their day-to-day work. And for us, that's become an absolutely essential part of the process.

Angela White of IUPUI had this advice for foundations when thinking about what records to keep:

We like to joke that records managers always want to throw things away and archivists always want to keep everything. It's not true. Neither part of that is true, but I think it gets to the heart of the thing. There is a huge element of risk management and records management that I do have to think about as an archivist. Because of the way we get collections, we do have to play records manager a little more than we otherwise might because the institutions that we work with very rarely have records managers. It's amazing, every institution that I think I've ever worked with has piles and piles of bank statements and utility bills. You really don't need to keep those forever, I promise.

Stanley Katz, a Princeton historian attending the meeting said this about limiting what records move through the records management program and into the archives:

We really don't know what the interesting historical questions are going to be, and I would urge you, as you think about particular rules for record retention and so forth. It's mainly the retention I'm concerned about. We can fight about access down the line. But if you don't have it, it's not going to be available for use. There are ways to protect the usage of material, we all know that, but I think a lot more energy needs to go into thinking about history as a stakeholder in this process, that there are organizations and individuals who spend their lives doing this.

Bob Clark of the Rockefeller Archive Center responded by saying:

The reality is that records management and archives require choices. And archivists, and records managers, and lawyers, and leaders in organizations try to make the best-informed choice possible to create the most robust record while also taking into consideration that these are not dead-letter archives. I used to work at the Roosevelt Presidential Library. That was a dead-letter archive. There were no more Roosevelt records being created by Franklin and Eleanor; they were gone. But in foundations, [records] are constantly being created, and so it's constantly tacking back and forth, and re-evaluating your risk, what your goals are year to year.

As the participants quoted above indicated, the records that foundations manage today come in digital form; they are born digital. While a retention schedule can and should be format agnostic in terms of what records will be kept, for how long, and how they should be dispositioned, managing born-digital records requires thinking through new processes that take into consideration both the unique characteristics of born-digital records and the systems where they are created and stored.

Digital Archives

Digital records can exist as multiple copies that are virtually identical. When a records retention schedule indicates that a copy of board minutes should be sent to the archive, it is simple enough to move a copy from the active board minutes folder in a shared drive or cloud storage folder to the digital archive folder within the same storage system. However, challenges arise when digital grant records must be exported from a content management system to save a copy for the archive. Many CMS applications don't provide a way to automate the export of specific data, and as a result, they require a more time-consuming manual approach. In addition, care must be taken to maintain the context between field data and uploaded files or links to files that point to storage locations in an external application. Another factor to keep in mind is that preserving digital records in a way that aspires to best practice standards requires more than simply copying files from an active folder to an archival folder. Digital preservation is covered at the end of this section, but three specific kinds of digital records inspired many conversations throughout the Advancing Foundation Archives meeting: email, grant records, and data sets.

Email is the new correspondence. Correspondence has been a core record group in archival collections since archivists first began collecting. Traditionally, correspondence includes letters, cards, memoranda, and notes, whether they be formal or informal, typewritten or handwritten. In organizations today, email stands in for all those things and more: calendar invites, subscription newsletters, solicitations from vendors, organization-wide broadcast emails, updates from social media accounts, order information, personal non-work-related messages, and the list goes on. Only a fraction of that might be considered a record of the organization, so what does that mean when the email account of a long-serving staff member is made available to the archive? While email as a record may hold an element of risk as explored in the previous section, email as correspondence remains a critical record group for the digital archives.

Marion Greenup, of the Simons Foundation, described a project management application where email-like messages are managed.

We manage a lot of our programs using other platforms like Teamwork or Basecamp, and some of them quite extensively. We launched a program in 2006 to recruit families, who had only one child with a diagnosis of autism. We did extensive work, including the genetics, but the entire project, managed with thirteen sites in North America, was all managed on one platform. Most of the emails associated with any of the decision-making [for that project] were all done there.

These "in-app" messages and their attachments contain critical documentary evidence that detail how the project was managed.

For individual staff members, knowing their email will be accessible to them indefinitely may be comforting but what happens when a staff member leaves? Many IT departments close accounts and can assign access to that account to incoming staff or to a supervisor. This provides limited access to the email, but if the email account had been transferred to the archive, it could have become accessible to staff across the foundation and possibly, at a later date, to researchers. The historians at the meeting advocated for archiving email because they value the context it provides to the other records in the collection.

One approach to archiving email is to ask staff to selectively save email messages that document a decision by exporting them from the email system and filing them with related records. At a minimum, many foundations ask program staff to upload grant-related email to the grants management system. Another approach, one used frequently by government agencies, is the capstone approach. This approach stipulates that the entire email account for staff in senior level positions be archived. In a foundation context, this might include the president/CEO and other executive level positions. The panelists and presenters did not delve into the processes and workflows that they use to archive emails. Different email management systems provide different mechanisms for exporting messages. There are also tools that let archivists redact email that may contain personal information or are associated with specific senders. (Resources on email archiving are provided at the end of this section.)

Grant records in archival collections are valued highly by researchers not only because they document the foundation's history of grant making, but also because they document the history of the hundreds or even thousands of nonprofits and individuals the foundation supported. In some cases, this may be the only historical footprint left by a particular organization or individual. In the past, those records were collected in paper grant files. Today, most foundations use a grants management system.

Both Phoebe Kowalewski and Lori Eaton mentioned working with grant records exported from Fluxx in their presentation. While grants management systems like Fluxx, SmartSimple, and Salesforce are frequently the system of record for active grants, to capture closed grant records for archiving means that both the information entered in data fields and any uploaded files must be exported in a way that maintains their relationship to one another. Few proprietary grants management systems have considered the need for archiving closed grants and therefore have not built in automated export options. Grants management system developers have little economic incentive to help subscribers export content and potentially move it to a different system. However, these vital records should not be trapped inside an application developed and controlled by an external organization.

During the meeting, side conversations about archiving grant records from grants management systems sparked a working group of archivists who later shared ad hoc workflows to export closed grants from Fluxx and lobbied Fluxx developers for an automated solution. More conversations among grants managers, IT staff, and archivists will be needed to highlight the importance of exporting grant records so they can be archived. Preserving closed grant records in a stable, nonproprietary system, will ensure they are as accessible as paper grant records to both staff and researchers. This will be an important discussion topic for future foundation archives meetings since best practices both for archiving and data security for grant records are a critical need.

Datasets are another type of record that foundations sometimes grapple with, particularly as many foundations require grantees to have a data management plan when a grant involves data collection. Like the National Science Foundation, private foundations expect grantees to deposit data sets in open access repositories. (Resources on data sets are provided at the end of this section.) The topic of datasets sparked insights from several presenters:

Marion Greenup, Simons Foundation:

At Simons, we have a real commitment to large datasets, it's our first love. And all of our grants come with terms and conditions that include data sharing and open access on some level. And for those datasets that we have declared a priority, we receive them, and we will host them, and we will create the right kind of access for them. We are learning as we go along, how to do this better, what kinds of issues there might be, but it's a big commitment to hosting, sharing, and protecting these very large datasets. And we talk about this all the time and worry about the risk associated with it.

Nicki Lodico, Ford Foundation:

We currently don't have a process for managing large datasets that are given to us by our grantees. This is something that I think we need to be talking with the [Rockefeller] Archive Center about as we're preparing to archive our digital files. What are the opportunities for managing large datasets? And I think it's a question for all of philanthropy as well. What are our obligations for doing this and what is the value and power of having a large source of datasets across all of our different organizations?

Bob Clark, Rockefeller Archive Center

[Datasets] present challenges that quite frankly are unsustainable from an archives perspective. Do we start to think outside the box and look for institutions that are doing that kind of work better and partner with them? Maybe a dataset from a foundation is hosted somewhere else, but because of the beauty of the twenty-first century, we can make connections to that location from the foundation record collections in our repository so that researchers can seamlessly be referred to that organization.

Angela White, IUPUI:

Being part of an academic institution here is a big benefit. We have a data librarian. She's not specifically for special collections, but she manages all the big datasets for grants that our researchers, particularly in public health, get. Making the datasets available is part of these agreements. We have ways of preserving this data and someone devoted to cleaning data and making it available in a useful format. So, you know, partnering with academic institutions that are research intensive is probably one way around this.

As with digital grant records, data sets are another digital record that could be a topic taken up at a future foundation archives meeting.

Preservation of Digital Archival Records

In paper-based archival collections, records are preserved in acid-free folders and boxes in a secure, climate-controlled facility. Care is taken to remediate records that may have been damaged by moisture, exposure to light, or pests. Many experts believe that digital archival records are even more fragile than paper records. At the very least, records made up of 0s and 1s require a different kind of preservation environment than do paper records. Best practices in digital preservation have been developed and refined, and foundation archivists are stepping into these waters as well. "We're living in a world where so much is digital, the ability to archive it digitally is absolutely paramount to make sure that that history is accessible," Lyons said. "The push that the Rockefeller Archive Center has made around electronic archiving is a really key component of that."

The Rockefeller Archive Center has developed an open-source digital records transfer system called Aurora that allows it to receive copies of digital records directly from foundation donors and then move the records and metadata about them into its existing digital preservation and content management infrastructure, where the records can be preserved securely according to industry best practices and then described and made accessible for research.

There are cloud-based preservation applications available to foundations that want to manage digital preservation internally. Archivematica is a preservation management system developed as an open-source, community-supported application and is used by the Rockefeller Archive Center and by many college and university libraries with the technical staff to set up and support it.

Lori Eaton deployed a subscription-based solution to manage the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation's archive:

In April 2019, we selected Preservica, a digital-preservation environment, to preserve our important digital records. The records can be stored in Preservica through spenddown, and Preservica can be set up to disposition accounts payable and other nonarchival records that we might be required to keep for a few years after spenddown. Most importantly, it can migrate file formats and prevent data loss for the files ingested to it today, through 2035, and beyond.

A foundation's IT department can be a key ally in the file storage and digital systems landscape. As participants in one of the Liberating Structures Lunch scenarios suggested, establish a collaborative relationship with IT staff and/or consultants, educate them about archival records, and gain their assistance in planning for preservation. Before having a conversation with IT, consider getting educated about what digital preservation means in an archive setting. Colleen McDonough, archivist for the Kettering Foundation, turned to professional organizations for boosting her knowledge:

We are looking into digital preservation, since we have an influx of that [born-digital archival records] coming our way, and we'll be facing more and more of that in the future. An important aspect has been training with digital archives, which means my assistant archivist and I have both taken DAS [Digital Archives Specialist] classes through SAA [Society of American Archivists].

Courses like those offered by the Society of American Archivists and other organizations dedicated to digital preservation as well as books like Trevor Owens' The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation can help foundation archivists be better prepared to advocate for the tools they need to preserve born-digital foundation records in the archives. (A list of digital preservation organizations is provided at the end of this section.)

One thing that records managers and archivists can be sure of is that the systems and technologies used to create, manage, store, retrieve, and archive foundation records will change. For proof of that, consider the thumb drives and external storage disks gathering dust in office closets and desk drawers. As new technologies emerge, it will be important for information management professionals to communicate with one another both inside and outside the foundation to ensure that applications and solutions meet a variety of needs.

More on email archiving

Resources for data sets management

Digital preservation organizations