This week, HistPhil begins a new forum on philanthropy, archives, and knowledge management. In some respects, the forum will likely cover ground already tilled by the many debates surrounding the issues of accountability and transparency occurring now within the sector. This forum, like those other discussions, will address the extent to which philanthropy opens itself to outside scrutiny. But there will be several significant differences. The first involves the timeframes involved. If discussions of transparency most often presuppose contemporaneous scrutiny, this forum on archives and knowledge management looks to future inquiries. As such, the issue of preservation will be foregrounded in a way that it is often not in discussions of transparency. Furthermore, foundations and philanthropists can preserve records without making them public, and so the level of accessibility associated with the knowledge preserved is an even more open question.
It is fair to say that it is one that has not necessarily been at the forefront of the sector’s consciousness in recent years. Even as the amount of records, information and knowledge produced by the sector grows exponentially, the issue of archival responsibility has remained a relatively low priority for many funders.
In 2012, John Craig, the Chief Operating Officer of the Commonwealth Fund, issued a report on “The Archives of U.S. Foundations.” His subtitle provides a good sense of his overall appraisal: he deemed them “An Endangered Species.” “The creation and maintenance of archives, if undertaken at all, is typically an afterthought,” Craig wrote, “and rarely considered a key information management responsibility.” A survey commissioned by the Commonwealth Fund of 261 foundations with assets greater than $240 million during the 2009-2012 period found that about half of the 97 foundations that responded reported having archives. But Craig pointed out that this result likely over-represents foundations with archives in the sector, since most of those that did not respond likely did not have archives. He suggested the proportion of foundations that have established archives was not much higher than the last survey, conducted in 1988 by the Rockefeller Archive Center, which found that “Of the 225 respondents from the 500 largest foundations, only 32, or 14 percent, placed their records in an archive. The percentage was even lower—8 percent—for the 169 foundations that rank within the next 500 largest foundations.”
Craig goes on to make a strong case for archives, citing their importance in preserving and providing insight for historical research on social movements and problems that philanthropy has addressed; in facilitating strategic planning and fostering learning for the sector; in ensuring institutional memory. These arguments would have been just as valid in 1988 as in 2012. But of course, so much has changed in the nature of knowledge production during the past decades that the discussions surrounding philanthropic archives have themselves been transformed. The spread of digital technology requires a rethinking of how the sector approaches the challenge of record preservation. So does the fact that the balance of resources within the sector (and some would say influence) has in recent decades moved away from the legacy foundations to more newly established foundations. Archives are rarely on the minds of those in the flush of youth. Then there is the spread of leaner philanthropic institutions, with less administrative capacity to devote to archiving and knowledge management—to say nothing of the rise of donor-advised funds and LLCs within the sector.
Not surprisingly, this forum is weighted toward those philanthropic institutions with the most enthusiastic commitment to archiving, most often legacy foundations. But we are eager to gain the perspective of living donors, or of donors giving through DAFs, on the issue of archival responsibility. (And if you’d like to share this perspective with our readers, please do email HistPhil at firstname.lastname@example.org).
After all, it would be wise for all funders to grapple with the questions raised by this forum, even those without an official archive: How will the knowledge produced by the sector be preserved and accessed in the years to come? What are some of the key decisions that philanthropic and archival officials face in determining what is preserved and what is not, what is made accessible and what is not, and how are these decisions likely to change over time? How can an understanding of an institution’s past be integrated into contemporary foundation practice?
We look forward to thinking through these questions with you in the weeks to come. If you’d like to contribute to the conversation, please do let us know. And if this isn’t a subject that interests you—don’t worry. There will be plenty of material coming to HistPhil soon outside the bounds of this forum.
Front page image courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.