Archives and Knowledge Management

Foundation Archives in the Digital Age

Editors’ Note: Lucy Bernholz continues HistPhil‘s forum on archives and knowledge management.

Foundations and archives often share a structural commitment to perpetuity. Yet most foundations haven’t shown an interest in organizing their own archives or in making them available to future scholars. This is a missed opportunity for institutions that care about their long-term impact. It’s also a decision over which the rules are changing.

My own introduction to foundation archives came as part of my experience writing a dissertation in the 1990s. I’d gone to graduate school to think harder about the relationships between public and private power and decision-making, and realized that studying philanthropic giving to public systems would be one way to accomplish this. I wanted to better understand how philanthropic dollars (and the agendas of those who provide them) work in a system (educational, health, or otherwise) theoretically provided by public vote, with public dollars, for public purpose. Other scholars that had dealt with similar issues had mined the archival records of the major legacy foundations. I looked forward to exploring these and assumed I could find the other archival resources I needed in California’s public schools.

Physical archives are the lifeblood of historical research. I knew I would need access to the raw materials filed and cared for in archives, and that this would involve travel—to Pocantico, New York, where the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC) is located; to 43rd Street, where the Ford Foundation maintained its records at the time; and probably to Indianapolis where Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) was building a significant archive of foundation records. Getting myself to the archives was only one step. Archives rely on controlled access—I was going to need letters of introduction, outlines of my thesis, and the ability to spend hours a day, for weeks on end, in the archives themselves. Once inside, I knew to expect more layers of control – from “pencil only” rules, to white glove requirements (in rare cases), to stipulations that the material be used on premises only, and limitations on photocopying. Physical archives are a remarkable example of a “controlled open” space for research. Those who donate the materials and those who care for them can set multiple levels of access control all in service of preserving the materials (and knowing what and by whom they are being used).

These resources still weren’t going to address my questions head on, as I wanted to look at California foundations. The Bay Area in 1992 was not yet the hotbed of philanthropy that it is now. There were foundations, sure, and a long history of philanthropy, but archives? Access to organizational material, board minutes, meeting notes? Not so much. I spent months making phone calls and mailing letters to foundation presidents to request records access.

Most of these inquiries were ignored or met with polite rejections. We don’t keep those records. We don’t make them available publicly. We are not interested. Eventually, I found two sources. Through the foresight of a small group of local foundation executives there is an oral history of California philanthropy in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Also there, as a result of a lawsuit, were the records of the San Francisco Foundation. Access to both sets of records was not automatic – I needed to provide proof of my research to use the oral history and I needed permission from the current president of the San Francisco Foundation to use the records they’d stored at Bancroft.

This was better than nothing, but it wasn’t enough. I turned to every graduate student’s trump card – I offered myself up as cheap labor.  I convinced the President of the Rosenberg Foundation to let me use their records by promising him that I would make order out of the chaos in the foundation’s file cabinets. The deal was that in order for me to do my work, I first would have to organize an entire storeroom full of filing cabinets. I eagerly said yes. I used this same trick to get access to the records of the San Francisco Unified School District. There the “archival problem” was even worse. No one had bothered to pick up the record books of District finance and board decisions since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. Once again, using the records for historical research was going to require me to pick them up, dust them off, catalogue them and put them back on the shelves.

My dissertation depended on a full range of access – from do-it-yourself storage closet cleaning in San Francisco to professionally-staffed, temperature controlled, access-monitored archival access in New York. But at the root of all of it was an organizational decision, made somewhere by someone, to let outsiders in to see the work.

In the years since I finished my doctoral research, the Ford Foundation closed down its internal archive and has put its papers at the RAC in Pocantico. Others foundations have done the same, or sent them to the library at IUPUI. Chuck Feeney and the Atlantic Philanthropies recently committed their materials to Cornell.  All of this matters a great deal for future scholars. I’m not aware of a notable uptick in foundations opening their archives, but some contextual changes make the decision-making process to do so quite different from the 1990s.

The most important contextual shift is the degree to which outside forces make it much harder for foundations to control what is known about them. The rise of social media, the ability to pull information off of websites without asking permission of the website owner, the opportunity to “reverse engineer” a foundation’s priorities from grantee reports – there are multiple ways to make sense of a foundation’s activities without seeking permission to do so. Reviewing tax forms online and cross referencing foundations to nonprofits is easier than it was in the 1990s (though still not easy). Foundation staff can be followed on social media, in both their official and unofficial capacities, and researchers can search for foundation-funded research and reports in everything from the Public Library of Science to IssueLab.

Many foundations have taken active stances about transparency, and in doing so are creating public records of their activities, which scholars can use both contemporaneously and retrospectively. Foundations (big, professionally staffed ones, at least) have moved many of their communications and outputs online. By using digital tools, they are beginning to work in public in ways unimaginable to previous generations. The public-facing RFPs and grant databases don’t tell the whole story of foundation decision-making, but they provide publicly available bookends for outsiders to consider. Social media communications, websites, press attention to funded projects and reports – all of these put the work of foundations out into the public eye in ways that scholars and others can see and use.

As foundations have put up websites and shared pdfs of reports, created online grants databases and dabbled in social media, they have begun to open up their archives whether or not they realize it. Also important to the future history of philanthropy will be the digital information infrastructure about nonprofits and foundations that has been built since the late 1990s. The Foundation Center’s digital records, IssueLab, linked metadata schemes that connect materials by issue area, all of this will prove useful to tomorrow’s historians. Even if a foundation chooses not to open up its phone logs (such as those available in the files at the Rockefeller Archive Center) it won’t be able to take its Twitter stream offline. Even as foundations manage their email and decision-making internally, a digital trail is created via the recipients of those emails and the submitters of those online applications.

These digital artifacts don’t tell a complete story. Foundations still have decisions to make about what internal materials they will save, what they will make available to scholars, and how. When they make these decisions now they face very different choices than their predecessors. First, because the public records of their activities is so much richer than it was before, their choice is less between “known and unknown” and more between “incomplete and publicly-facing or more nuanced and internally-supported.” Web scrapers don’t have to ask permission, and research on the Twitter stream or Facebook data hose doesn’t require approval from the foundations who post there. Scholars and historians will be able to tell some story about foundations from this public trail; it will just be incomplete. Foundations creating these daily digital presences may not be doing so with an eye toward the longer-term story they’re writing in public. Even if a foundation doesn’t want to be studied by outsiders, they can and will be, and they may decide that the incomplete story is not the one they want told.

From a scholar’s perspective, these public-facing digital artifacts are much easier to get to than taking the train to Pocantico, and there are no white gloves or pencils required. That said, understanding the mismatch between a public trail and private documentation is often the opening gambit for scholars. Foundations that do want to make internal documents available for future scholarship still have choices to make about control and access. The latter is much easier in the digital age. The former requires new mechanisms for granting permissions and use rights, and requires consideration of the public story that can be pieced together regardless.

It’s hard to say if foundations being created today, surrounded by norms of greater transparency, are likely to be more open with their archives than their predecessors. In addition to the increased interest in transparency, there are so many foundations marking major anniversaries as well as those opting to sunset operations that commissioned retrospectives and organizational histories are becoming common. What remains to be seen is whether philanthropic foundations who are thinking strategically about digital tools – for present-day communication or programmatic extension –  will extend these considerations to their longer-term legacies.

-Lucy Bernholz

Lucy Bernholz is a senior research scholar at Stanford PACS and Director of the Digital Civil Society Lab.


One thought on “Foundation Archives in the Digital Age

  1. What was the “oral history of California philanthropy” at Bancroft? That’s a vague description, and I’d like a more precise one.

    Also, I assume the San Francisco Foundation records in Bancroft were there as a result of the Buck Trust case. Do they end in 1983 or are there more recent records?

    Martin Morse Wooster,


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