Archives and Knowledge Management / Philanthropy and Historical Research

Hewlett’s Larry Kramer on Archives & Historical Analysis at the Foundation

Editors’ Note: The following is an interview between HistPhil co-editor Maribel Morey and Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer, which took place over email in the past weeks. For earlier Q&As between Kramer and Morey, please follow this link. Below, Kramer discusses the foundation’s forthcoming plans to establish formal archives and the organization’s use of its history in its decision-making processes. This Q&A continues HistPhil‘s archives forum

HISTPHIL: By comparison to Rockefeller, Carnegie and Ford foundations with archives at the Rockefeller Archive Center and Columbia University (and Atlantic Philanthropies with plans to deposit their papers at Cornell University), the Hewlett Foundation doesn’t seem have an archival collection open to the public. Is that right? If so, what is available to researchers right now? If not, are there plans to make material available, and which papers would these be? Much as the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Corporation, do you have plans for oral histories of senior staff? 

KRAMER: It’s not that the Hewlett Foundation doesn’t have an archival collection open to the public. It’s that the Hewlett Foundation doesn’t have an archival collection period.  The Hewletts were genuinely modest people, a value they instilled deep into the culture of their foundation. It would not have occurred to them to create an archive, as they would not have believed that anyone would be all that interested in the doings of the foundation. We have files, of course, but they are not organized as an archive would be organized. We would happily make them available to researchers and even help order and organize them as much as our stretched resources permit.

As a former historian, I have taken steps to remedy this. Two years ago, we arranged for Bill Hewlett’s papers (which were just sitting in boxes in an office) to be donated to Stanford, and we made a grant to the University to hire an archivist to catalog them. As part of our 50th anniversary in 2016, we made a grant to two researchers to go through the papers and write a monograph on the materials pertaining to the Hewletts’ philanthropy and foundation. More than this, we undertook a number of related projects to better understand our history—including a quantitative/qualitative analysis by the Bridgespan Group, a documentary film about how the Hewletts’ values are instilled in the organization, and separate histories of several programs.

All this is fine and good, and we have made these various forms of archival and secondary literature available to researchers. But I want to take the next step and create a real archive. The Hewlett Foundation has been involved in enough major philanthropic efforts that historians and scholars of philanthropy may want and need access. We enlarged our Communications Department last year, chiefly to expand our capacity to improve our strategic communications and to help grantees with theirs. But the department also undertook to reconstruct our website, to make our work easier to access. Those were big projects, but now that they are complete, I have asked the director to look into establishing an archive. I have not yet given thought to the idea of oral histories, though.

HISTPHIL: Do Hewlett’s internal archives inform your decision-making process as president of the organization? 

KRAMER: While we don’t have a formal archive, we do have a lot of material from our past: board minutes, strategy memos, detailed files on each grant (including correspondence), and so on. And, yes, I rely on that material for a number of reasons. As a matter of common sense, we cannot make smart decisions about our future without understanding our past and drawing on knowledge about what we have done or tried and what worked or did not. Such lessons are essential.

But I rely on these materials for a more normative reason—namely, I believe our past should play a role informing decisions about our future. The Hewletts left us discretion to chart the foundation’s future direction, but I don’t believe we should take that as a blank check to push, willy nilly, into whatever projects strike our fancy. The Hewletts also instilled core values and concerns—values and concerns that remain vital and to which we own continued fidelity.

I approach these questions much as I approached constitutional law as an academic lawyer and historian. I am not an originalist: I do not believe we should keep doing what Bill and Flora Hewlett did just because they did it. But neither am I what constitutional theorists used to call an “interpretivist”—that is, someone who thinks he has the freedom to do whatever makes sense to me today, unconstrained by anything other than my sense of moral rightness. Rather, I believe we must be engaged in an ongoing conversation with our past. We start by understanding what was done before and why: what were the goals, the values, the beliefs that drove the earlier work? How were those goals and beliefs instantiated in action? What lessons did they learn? With that guidance, and constraint, we then make the best sense we can of translating those goals and values into present circumstances. What we do today will not be the same as what they did yesterday, but it should follow from it in some rational way. And our actions then become part of the past for our successors, who carry on the same tradition. And so it goes in an ongoing evolutionary process.

HISTPHIL: At a time when foundation boards increasingly want to measure the value of their grants through quantitative means, does the more qualitative art of philanthropic history play a role in the board’s analysis of past and future programs? If that’s the case, how do you and your board blend these quantitative and qualitative tools of analysis? 

KRAMER: I’m going to resist the question a bit, because I think the distinction between “quantitative” and “qualitative” information is misleading. Information comes in lots of forms: there are different kinds of qualitative data and different kinds of quantitative data. It’s really a continuum of sorts. What data helps—what kind of qualitative data, what kind of quantitative data—depends entirely on the nature of the question, or, in philanthropy, on the nature of the strategy. If there is a perception of a sharp line between quantitative and qualitative data, I think it is largely a byproduct of the fact that our ability to gather and assess quantitative data has grown tremendously in the past generation (and not just in philanthropy). So the wider use of quantitative tools feels new and different. But it’s still just information.

In everything we do at Hewlett, we gather both quantitative and qualitative information, using and blending it in whatever way helps best to inform our thinking. Data of different sorts are essential, and they inform each other. Not everyone always agrees on what information or what kind of information is most informative, of course, so arguing about that becomes part of the discussion too. At the end of the day, it’s all about judgment—judgment informed by data, but still just our best judgment, all things considered. We’re thoroughly pragmatic in this sense.

HISTPHIL: Could you reflect on an example when foundation records informed your own and/or the board’s practices at Hewlett? And was this the foundation’s own internal history or philanthropic history more generally? 

KRAMER: This question is difficult to answer because, as I explained above, past experience informs literally everything we do. Take grant craft, for example: this past year, we published “A Practical Guide to Outcome Focused Philanthropy.” This modifies our approach to grantmaking in a number of ways based on a close examination (both quantitative and qualitative!) of our past experience.

Similar examples abound. In deciding to focus our “Knowledge for Better Philanthropy” strategy on staffed foundations, we relied on an evaluation of past experience suggesting the difficulties of making headway with individual donors. Our work to promote open educational resources changed to increase support for champions inside government based on an examination of disparate experience supporting different kinds of advocates. Our support for “NextGen” arts leaders shifted from a single-minded focus on promoting younger arts leaders to include baby boomers based on evidence that helping the older generation share leadership and transition out must be part and parcel of any effort to support their successors. And so on.

The deeper past is also relevant in shaping our direction, whether in articulating new Guiding Principles, helping decide how broadly to construe “the Bay Area” in thinking about our work in performing arts, or shaping the kinds of arguments we emphasize in building support for improving women’s reproductive health. We strive to be a learning organization, and if that means anything, it means keeping track of what we have done so we can learn from it. We build plans for monitoring and evaluation into all our work, and we draw on them pervasively as we go along.

HISTPHIL: Scholars likely will want to analyze your own presidency at Hewlett, and so too the board’s actions during your tenure. What sources do you imagine will be most useful for these future scholars who might want to capture your vision for the organization and the internal dynamics within the organization during these years? On this point, how are you preserving this material for such future scholars? 

KRAMER: I share the Hewletts’ sensibility when it comes to what I do, so I am not dissimulating when I say that I doubt scholars will want to analyze my presidency. If they do, however, the materials will be available, and they are just the sorts of materials you might expect. I like to write and am very intentional about communicating to the staff and board what we are doing, why we are doing it, who we are striving to be, and the like. So there are memos and talks explaining almost everything worth talking about. Some of these are already public, but all would be available. The Hewlett Foundation has not created an archive, but it has always been willing to share information openly. We keep good minutes of our board meetings, and careful records of our work. It will be easy for future researchers to track exactly what the foundation did and what we thought we were doing. But it will become much easier if and when we establish a real archive.

HISTPHIL: As foundation president, what have you learned about the internal dynamics and potential impact of a philanthropic institution that scholars of the sector should appreciate?

KRAMER: That would be the subject of a whole new and separate forum and take at least a volume to lay out! But let me mention one that I think important.  Decision-making within foundations is slow and complex chiefly because it is so distributed. To make anything happen, you need to align program officers, program directors, CEOs, and boards, and that turns out to be really hard. In the end, it is also inevitably decentralized, because that’s where the expertise and knowledge of details rests, which means scholars need to pay less attention to boards and CEOs and more to program officers and directors, and especially officers. That’s where the real action is.


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