Archives and Knowledge Management

Finding, and Preserving, Democracy in UK’s voluntary sector archives

Editors’ Note: Charlotte Clements continues HistPhil’s forum on archives and knowledge management.

In this post I want to offer a UK perspective on the archives of philanthropic and non-profit organisations. I am sure that several of the issues I highlight are common outside the UK and I am interested in working across borders to share knowledge about best practice and to champion the archives of voluntary organisations.

My interest in the archives of voluntary organisations began as a researcher. I have used them for many years while studying youth voluntary movements in England. For me, the preservation of these archives is a matter of democracy: they are a vital record of the role of civil society, past and present. We cannot understand or protect democracy without recourse to the knowledge and memory contained in the archives of such organisations, whether they are large grant makers such as the Pears Foundation, welfare providers like Barnardos, arts organisations, or pressure groups like Greenpeace. This begs the question: how can we protect these precious resources?

A lack of policy

In England and Wales, the Public Records Act 1958, Data Protection Act 1998 and Freedom of Information Act 2000 govern preservation of and access to public – that is – state records. Policy has long sought to leave a lasting record of how the state has acted. In Scotland the more recent Public Records Act 2011 extended record keeping duties to organisations fulfilling public contracts. This can include some voluntary organisations and private companies where they are in receipt of public money—for example by running children’s centres. However, in no part of the UK is there a widespread legal duty to preserve the records of voluntary organisations.

Laws governing the operation of the UK voluntary sector offer little remedy. Non-profit organisations come in many types and different regulations apply to them. For charities – a tightly defined group of voluntary bodies – there is a duty to send very basic information to the Charity Commission (their regulator). There are guidelines on the retention of financial data. In 2016 new policy came in the form of requirements from the new Fundraising Regulator, such as on retention of donor data.  Yet even here there is a failure to see a wide ranging duty to preserve archives and records.

A sector under pressure

Another important piece of context is the current climate for UK non-profits, charities and philanthropic organisations. Today, voluntary organisations face the convergence of several unfavourable currents. Firstly, since 2010 successive governments have sought to cut public spending, shrink the state and encourage more third-party organisations to provide services. Non-profits are expected to deliver more services, absorb funding cuts, handle an increase in demand for services and compete with profit-making companies for available resources. Quite simply, this is proving too much for some organisations. While some have coped via restructures and mergers, others have folded, such as the National Council for Youth Voluntary Services and Community Development Foundation.

Secondly, trust and transparency are big issues for the sector at the moment. We have witnessed several scandals which have put public trust in charity at risk, from the high profile collapse of Kids Company (a charity helping vulnerable children) to a scandal about fundraising methods and retention of personal data. Most importantly, perhaps, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is currently investigating the scale of historic abuse in England, following investigations elsewhere and revelations of prolific sexual abuse committed by celebrities such as Jimmy Savile. Voluntary organisations have a long tradition of providing services, including residential care, to children. They too have come under the spotlight. Recent figures suggest that public trust in UK charities has declined significantly in the last two years.[1]

There is growing pressure on the work of non-profit organisations as they face increased scrutiny. Without a framework for ensuring and supporting archival preservation now it is clear that some records simply will not survive current risks. Since I began working in this area I have helped several organisations to deposit their archives upon closure. I know of several more that have been lost. A lack of surviving records and problems gaining access to those that remain have hindered many researchers who have sought to uncover this vital past, myself included. Yet it is not just historians who should be worried about such frustrations. What about those whose personal or family histories are contained in these archives? Who else should be worried and what help is out there for them?

There are pressing reasons why archives and record keeping are relevant for voluntary organisations today. Above all, records are a vital asset for an organisation; they demonstrate decision-making and good governance; provide crucial evidence of past success, learning and impact; capture an organisation’s identity; and they can be used to demonstrate why an organisation should be valued. In a climate where trust, reputation and risk are increasingly pertinent issues, archives hold a wealth of material which organisations to can use to confront present-day challenges.

With no large-scale support programme for voluntary sector archives, even when organisations are persuaded of the value of keeping an archive, practice is patchy at best. Only a small number of UK charities successfully maintain an in-house archive staffed by a professional archivist; these include the Children’s Society, the British Red Cross and Royal Voluntary Service. This arrangement tends to be appropriate for larger charities. Other organisations have deposited their archives in national, local and specialist repositories, such as the Child Poverty Action Group, whose archive is now held at the London School of Economics or Save the Children UK, whose papers are at Birmingham University. Many more struggle with even basic archival preservation, with the lack of capacity in small- and medium-sized organisations a particular problem.

Help for UK organisations

As Research Assistant on the British Academy Research Project ‘Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain’ based at University College London, my goal is to support organisations of all shapes and sizes in preserving their archives. This five-year project has produced new guidance on archives and record keeping for voluntary organisations, drawing on existing best practice from a range of partners. We are currently piloting the guidance with organisations in the UK and will revise it accordingly. A version of the guidance is on the project website and we strongly welcome feedback. Alongside this, we are developing new record management tools that will help organisations meet present day needs in areas such as governance and risk management. Digitisation is one possible tool for organisations to use and we are looking at ways to help charities with this, but it should not be seen as a universal answer to the problems of voluntary sector archives or as a replacement for paper documents.

In fact, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to non-profit archives in the UK, a fact that reflects the nature and diversity of the sector itself. Without a uniform legal duty to keep records it is likely that more records will be lost. There is a possibility that changes to Freedom of Information legislation and the regulation of charity in the future could see record keeping move higher up the agenda. Yet a wider recognition of the value of these archives and records to society and democracy must come with recognition of the need to provide much more support to organisations to meet their archival obligations. There are opportunities and challenges ahead for non-profit organisations in the UK and across the world. Archives are an important, if often forgotten, aspect of these.

-Charlotte Clements

Charlotte Clements is Research Assistant on the British Academy Funded Research Project ‘Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain’ led by Dr Georgina Brewis at UCL Institute of Education in partnership with NCVO and Northumbria University. This project promotes awareness of the importance of voluntary organisations’ archives and provides support and guidance on preservation and digitisation of archives. Charlotte has a PhD in voluntary sector history and social policy, looking at the history and social policy of youth voluntary movements. She has been a researcher using voluntary sector archives and promoting their preservation for over five years. You can find her at her blog, on twitter or via the project website.

[1] Data from Populus Research undertaken for the Charity Commission. Available here:


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