Transparency Talk

Category: "Archives" (5 posts)

An Interactive Timeline to Mark Our 75th Birthday? Piece of Cake
March 23, 2016

(Sally Crowley is the communications director for The John R. Oishei Foundation.)

Sally Crowley Our 75th anniversary had been looming over us here at The John R. Oishei Foundation for about a year. We knew it was coming, and had brainstormed ways to mark it memorably and cost-effectively. It presented us with an excellent opportunity to build more awareness for our Foundation and its long history of supporting the community.

By mid-2015, we had developed a year-long communications plan to create an ongoing “buzz” about turning 75 in 2016. The plan focused on “75 Years of Giving” and included some “usual suspects” such as a kick-off reception, banners, signage, etc.

Probably the most interesting element of our anniversary plan is the interactive timeline that we created for our website’s homepage. We wanted to compile interesting facts to help the media write about us and to arm our board and staff members with key talking points.

We also wanted to acknowledge and honor the people who helped build the Foundation over time. And, we wanted to be “cutting edge” with our tactics to help enhance our image as a leader in digital communications in our region. Rather than starting from scratch, we searched for an existing timeline “widget” that could be integrated into our site somewhat easily.

We found one used by TIME Magazine to tell the life story of Nelson Mandela. We figured, “hey, if it’s good enough for TIME Magazine, it’s probably good enough for us.”

“TimelineJS” is an open-source tool offered by Northwestern University’s KnightLab that allows the “average Joe” (or “Jo” in this case) to create visually rich, interactive timelines. In theory, beginners (like me) can generate a timeline using nothing more than Google Sheets.

In order to use the tool, we had to have a Google account (which we did.) Our IT vendor got us started by placing KnightLab’s Google Sheets template into our Google Drive and setting up a folder for use as an image repository. Once these were in place, all we needed to do was type in dates, headlines and copy for each timeline entry. It was as easy as filling out an Excel spreadsheet. We then uploaded corresponding images to the repository. Happily, this was just a click-and-drag motion. We added the link from each photo into the matching record on the spreadsheet.

To be very frank, the process was a little more difficult and time consuming than I thought it would be. I needed our IT vendor to set things up for me – that was beyond my technical capabilities. Then, they also needed to “take the generated Javascript code provided on the Knightlab website, and arrange the code nicely in our website.” They, in fact, had to help me write that last sentence describing exactly what they did at the end. It seemed like magic to me. I told them, “I have completed the Google Sheet” and two days later, the timeline was up and functioning.

The most time-consuming part was gathering key milestones from our Foundation’s 75-year history. We scoured microfilm at the library. We rifled through boxes of old memorabilia, pulling out relevant newspaper clippings and scanning them -- being careful not to handle them too much for fear of their complete disintegration. We went through our electronic files to pull snippets from media releases, photos of key happenings, etc. The result, SO FAR, is over 100 timeline entries, and the rescue of significant artifacts of our Foundation’s past from the dustbin of history.

One of the coolest characteristics of the timeline is that it is dynamic. I can keep adding things as I have time. And, we can get input from the community. For example, we promoted the timeline on social media, asking folks to try it out and to let us know if we missed anything important. (I knew we’d missed something, since I have not been at the Foundation for 75 years and am, unfortunately, not omnipotent.) Sure enough, I heard back from a staff member -- I forgot the promotion of a colleague. So, I found a photo, uploaded it into Google Drive, went into the Google spreadsheet and added the date and headline. In 5 minutes, the entry was live.

Overall, I’d say the effort was very worthwhile. Feedback has been extremely positive. And, I have to admit: it’s better than I could have imaged.

Take a look. Let us know your thoughts on it and/or share your experiences with anniversary communications and/or interactive timelines!

--Sally Crowley

Advice on Archives from a Knowledge Manager: A Q&A with Alan Divack
March 28, 2013

(Alan S. Divack is Senior Project Manager for Archives and Knowledge Management at the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program. He was a guest at the recent Philanthropy New York forum, "How Will Your Foundation's Story Be Told in 100 Years: Why Archives Matter," which was chronicled in a blog post here.)

Divack-100Transparency Talk (TT): You mentioned at the forum that electronic data presents new challenges and opportunities for archival preservation, including the challenge of capturing data generated with changing hardware and software. How have these changes affected the functionality of archives in relation to the transparency of information for researchers?

“I think that foundations, as public trusts, are under an obligation (still undefined) to make their information public. The 990s alone just don’t cut it.”

Alan Divack (AD): The changes affect every aspect of records preservation and use of the material.  I think that impact on transparency depends on these other fundamental issues. In order to keep electronic records available over time, institutions have three basic options: 1) the hardware and software platforms necessary for their use must be preserved; 2) the records must be converted to a more generic format more likely to be useable in the future (migration); or 3) systems must be developed that will enable future hardware and software systems to imitate the functionality of the original systems (emulation). Of these, 2 and 3 are the most promising, but each requires substantial planning and investments. If these investments are not made, the records will not be usable in the future and they become completely opaque to researchers.

TT: Based on your work to create the Global Archives at the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program, how can archives enable foundations to further their international human rights work? What documents or data are most important for facilitating a successful archival system in this area, and what are the risks involved with preserving and providing access to this information?

AD: I would actually flip this around and encourage foundations interested in human rights work to consider funding archival programs. A lot of human rights work depends on accurate documentation of offenses. When states or non-state actors commit offenses, it is often up to the non-governmental organization (NGO) sector to document what has happened, and then to preserve this documentation so that it can be used for both mobilization and individual redress. The Ford Foundation has worked with many grantees, particularly in Latin America, on this and I think that there is room for such programs in other regions as well.

TT: According to a new study by The Commonwealth Fund, “The Archives of U.S. Foundations: An Endangered Species,” 80 percent of foundations with archives are not keeping important e-mail messages, and more than half are not preserving Web site information. As a specialist in digitization and electronic records, what value can be gained by archiving e-mail and Web site data and what is lost by deleting it?

AD: I think that the full record format in most organizations is actually e-mail plus attachment. A report or memo may be saved in electronic format, but it leaves a lot of questions. Why was it written? For whom? How was it received? I once cataloged a hard-copy report recommending a new line of work for a foundation. It turns out the recommendations were set aside, but it was impossible to determine this from the documentary record. I only found this out later from talking to some of those involved. A thread of e-mails can provide a tremendous amount of information about the documents that they convey. E-mails tend to be less formal and controlled than other organizational records and therefore present particular challenges, more for cultural than technological reasons. While they are certainly valuable for internal use, organizations may want to be more cautious about their use by the research public. One possible approach is to restrict their use to on-site in research archives, rather than making them available with other electronic resources over the Internet.

Web content is sort of the flip side in that the challenges are more technical than cultural. Because most of it is vetted and designed for public consumption, Web content presents few access/confidentiality problems. The problems with Web content arise because it is changed rapidly and because of the networked nature of the document. What a user sees on a Web page may come from several different sources, and the result may be unusable unless all of the sources are transferred to the archives and linked appropriately. One resource worth exploring is Internet Archive, which  tries to archive Web sites and would probably not only be happy to archive a foundation’s Web content, but would also do it better. 

TT: According to John Craig, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Commonwealth Fund, most institutions do not archive declined proposals. Can foundations or researchers gain knowledge from these proposals, and should they be preserved?

AD: I think that for the most part, foundations are making the right decision on this. In my experience, most large foundations fund very few unsolicited proposals. However, they often get large numbers. I don’t see the long-term value in preserving inquiries that are often tangential to a foundation’s work. In general, proposals and partners are actively solicited by program staff in their fields. These proposals are the end-product of long conversations and interactions, and are very different from most received by a foundation. There are two exceptions to this: responses to Requests-For-Proposals, which are likely to be related to specific foundation initiatives, and cases where foundations actually do fund a large proportion of unsolicited proposals.

TT: Can you give us an example, or tell a story, about how foundation archives have been used to improve philanthropic work in the U.S. or abroad?

Just as, due to the complexities of social change, it can be difficult to attribute specific instances of change to foundation programs, it is difficult to cite uses of foundation archives with specific impact. However, I can refer to a number of research projects from my time at the Ford Foundation where the use of the archives may have helped change how the foundation approached its programming: an evaluation of programs in international relations, which included significant archival research, led to a reorientation of the foundation’s international programs. In a similar field, but with a narrower geographic focus, I believe that a highly critical report questioning the impacts of the foundation’s programs on dialogues between India and Pakistan led the foundation to redirect its resources there. More broadly, on the topic of evaluation and reflection, few foundations have the resources or the attention span to reflect on the long-term impact of their programs. By making their records available to the research public, there are scholars who will do that for them and contribute to knowledge in the fields that foundations continue to care about. 

TT: Do you think that archives help foundations to tell their own stories versus having others tell their stories for them?

AD: It is not an either/or but rather a both. When I worked at the Ford Foundation archives, I think a majority of our research use was for foundation staff. Although communications staff were major users (telling the story), the largest group were program staff. There was little institutional memory, and this was a niche that the archives occupied. With broad availability of a robust intra-net within the foundation, this has changed. Most program staff information needs are for relatively recent information (let’s say the past decade) and enough of this is available electronically from the intranet, rather than from the archives, to meet these needs. 

TT: What are the best access policies to balance the needs of both researchers and foundations?

AD: There is no single best policy. I think that foundations, as public trusts, are under an obligation (still undefined) to make their information public. The 990s alone just don’t cut it. However, I think that just because information or records should be made available, they do not have to be made available immediately and without restriction. In fact, if there are no restrictions and the presumption is that all records should be open to researchers at once, I think that records creators are less likely to create, capture, and maintain the kinds of information that will be of use to researchers, even in the near future. Access policies should balance the needs of the public and researchers to know in the medium term with the necessity of organizations to conduct business and make decisions in the short term.

One way in which I think electronic records will complicate this going forward is the extent to which they might be made universally available over the internet. The access challenges may be more cultural than technological. Institutions had a certain degree of comfort with historical records being used in analog form in a controlled setting. The open frontier of the internet is something else entirely.

-- Alan Divack

The Archives of U.S. Foundations: an Endangered Species, Part 2
January 14, 2013

John E. Craig, Jr., is Executive Vice President & COO of The Commonwealth Fund. He recently presented at a Philanthropy New York event on Why Archives Matter, which was the subject of an earlier blog post here.

Craig_100In an earlier blog, I reported the findings of The Commonwealth Fund’s December 2012 survey of foundations’ current archiving practices. It is of considerable concern that no more than 20 percent of even large foundations (those with assets of $240 million or more) maintain archives, given the importance of historical records to researchers and helping to assure accountability and good management in the sector.

A review of the literature, the survey findings, and conversations with leading archivists and foundation officers suggest ways in which the state of archiving in the foundation sector could be improved:

1. The number of foundations currently maintaining archives is far fewer than it should be, and foundation boards and executives should give more attention to the issue than they do now. Audit and compliance committees of foundation boards should ensure that at least the short-term records-retentions policy required by Sarbanes-Oxley is developed and enforced, and should take an active role in seeing that the question of archiving important records is addressed at the board level.

2. Chief executive officers of foundations should see one of their responsibilities as assessing the foundation’s need for archives and, if the decision is affirmative, delegating clear responsibility for their development and maintenance.

3. Boards and managements should see that resources are set aside as needed to achieve archiving objectives. The 2012 survey reveals that most foundations will find that maintaining archives, if done efficiently, is not a major expense.

4. Every foundation should have a stated archiving policy—even if it is “none”—to ensure that the question has been addressed. Policies should specify what records are to be preserved, the archiving model to be pursued (in-house vs. outsourced), access guidelines and restrictions, and guidelines for paper and electronic preservation. Archiving policies should ensure that the intensity of the archiving effort varies with the potential value of materials to users. The policy should be reviewed every five years to ensure that it keeps up with advances in information storage technology.

5. Archives are a "glasspockets" issue, and the Council on Foundations should be encouraged to include maintenance of archives among its best-practice guidelines for foundations above some minimum endowment size.

6. Outsourcing the archiving function to an external archive center is a viable option that many foundations, including multi-billion dollar ones, should consider. The choice of external center, however, must be made with care, and performance monitored regularly. Important questions include the following: do the foundations or other organizations that are currently donating archival records to the external center share similar objectives and expectations; does the external center have other significant collections that provide a valuable context for the foundation's archive; can the center meet the foundation’s expectations regarding the speed with which records are processed, provided with online finding aids, and opened to researchers; does the archival institution have the capacity to manage the long-term preservation of digital records and to provide access to them?

7. Many foundations, especially small and newer ones, may find that their archiving objectives going forward can be met with cloud-based content management systems (now spreading throughout the foundation community) that can be adapted in various ways for use by external researchers.

8. Two-thirds of larger foundations were established after 1989, but youth should be no excuse for postponing the question of whether to archive or not. Indeed, young foundations are in the enviable position of being on the ground floor on the technology front, often starting out with state-of-the art information systems in which virtually all of their records have always been kept digitally. Under these circumstances, archives are almost a natural byproduct of a good information system, with minimal marginal cost.

9. Spend-down foundations are prone to establish archives, but they often confront the issue only as the date of their sunset becomes imminent. Ideally, the question should be addressed early in their life.

10. Information technology staff of foundations should have as one of their major responsibilities the development of systems within the foundation that advance archiving objectives. They should work closely with the external archive center, when the foundation uses one, to coordinate and promote IT initiatives.

11. An affinity group of foundation officers with responsibility for archives (both in-house and outsourced) would greatly advance the spread of best practices in the sector. Foundations without archives reported in the 2012 survey that if there were a foundation-led group developing archiving standards and guidelines and providing information on consultants and experienced-based advice on technical issues, they would be better equipped to activate nascent plans for establishing archives.

12. Most importantly, consideration should be given to development of archive cooperatives by a consortia of foundations with common interests and archiving objectives. It is doubtful that existing archive centers have the capacity to take on large numbers of new foundation clients. Given the enormous number of foundations, interregional differences, and frequent commonality of interests at the regional level, multiple foundation archive coops might well be easier to launch and operate than a single national one. If the concept were to be judged promising, it could be piloted and capitalized by a few very large foundations in an “early adopter region”—with spread of the model to other regions to follow, if justified by the experience of the pilot.

In giving inadequate attention to the preservation of its historical records, the foundation sector is shortchanging historians and researchers of public policy, social movements, and important institutions and individuals who made a difference in their time. Above all, foundations are shortchanging themselves, by not ensuring that records exist for learning from experience and demonstrating their worth to society.

--John E. Craig, Jr.

The Archives of U.S. Foundations: an Endangered Species, Part 1
January 9, 2013

John E. Craig, Jr., is Executive Vice President & COO of The Commonwealth Fund. He recently presented at a Philanthropy New York event on Why Archives Matter, which was the subject of an earlier blog post here.

Craig_100A foundation’s archives preserve records of the programs, activities, products, governance, people, and history of the organization that may have enduring cultural, historical, research, or institutional value. Yet, despite the important role archives play in a field that focuses on investing in ideas, a recently released survey about foundation record management practices reveals that only a small minority maintain foundation archives, so clearly there is a need to make a case for why foundations should devote resources to archive development and management. There are at least six compelling reasons for why foundations should give their inactive files and historical records serious attention:

1. Historical Research on Social and Economic Developments and Influential Institutions and Individuals.
The late Paul Ylvisaker described philanthropy as “America’s passing gear,” and foundations serve this purpose in numerous ways: by helping to launch movements (such as civil rights, environmental protection, or health care reform); by developing new institutions and strengthening existing ones; by making society more inclusive through support of programs to improve the lot of vulnerable populations; by building up the knowledge base for social improvements and

“…no history of the civil rights movement would be complete without access to the permanent records of the Ford Foundation; no history of the development of the “miracle” rice strains that sparked the Green Revolution… would be complete without the records of the Rockefeller and Ford foundations; and no history of the health care reform legislation of 2010 would be complete without the records of The Commonwealth Fund, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation…”

scientific advancement and, through the support of individual researchers, contributing to the nation’s intellectual capital; and by strengthening the social fabric and physical capital of the communities in which foundations operate. In the hands of good researchers, the records of foundations can provide guidance for future generations in tackling new and continuing social problems. As examples, no history of the civil rights movement would be complete without access to the permanent records of the Ford Foundation; no history of the development of the “miracle” rice strains that sparked the Green Revolution, which helped transform Southeast Asian societies in the 1960s and 1970s, would be complete without the records of the Rockefeller and Ford foundations; and no history of the health care reform legislation of 2010 would be complete without the records of The Commonwealth Fund, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and other national and regional health care philanthropies.

2. Promoting Accountability in the Foundation Sector
The permanent records of foundations help foster accountability among this very privileged group of institutions. Foundations, given their exemption from most federal and state taxes, owe it to the public to provide clear and accessible records of how they have conducted their business and what they have accomplished—records that enable rigorous independent assessments of the impact of foundations’ strategies and programmatic investments.

3. Protecting the Foundation Sector and Defending Institutions from Misinformed Attacks
Individual foundations and the sector as a whole periodically come under attack—by regulators, elected officials, the media, or academics. In the absence of good historical records, foundations are at risk of not being able to make their case for being tax-exempt convincingly, or they may simply be caught flatfooted in being able to produce records of their accomplishments and actual behavior.

4. Facilitating Strategic Planning and Fostering a Learning-from-Experience Culture
Archival records enrich the research base for consideration of foundations’ future directions and help ensure program continuity. The lessons from earlier experience that they hold can help prevent strategic and tactical mistakes by current and future foundation managers.

5. Ensuring Institutional Memory and Sense of Accomplishment
Permanent archives are also a primary source for the institutional memory that is vital to learning organizations, and for the institutional pride that ensures the strong staff morale needed to achieve high performance.

6. Good Management and Administrative Efficiency
Finally, the care given to archives is a beneficial operational discipline, with orderly archives being a reflection of efficient office practices and good management. Inactive records are not allowed to pile up and get in the way of current files and information from inactive files can be achieved quickly when needed.

2012 Survey of Foundation Archives
As important as archives are for good foundation management, a confidential December 2012 survey of the 300 largest foundations conducted for The Commonwealth Fund by Mathew Greenwald & Associates finds that, even among very large foundations, no more than 20 percent maintain archives. The survey findings are reported on The Commonwealth Fund’s Web site. The surveyed institutions account for approximately 52 percent of the foundation sector’s endowment assets, including private, community, corporate, and operating foundations. Among the responding foundations, those with larger endowments, those with larger staffs, and those that are older were found to be more likely to maintain archives.

The survey revealed that only 37 percent of the non-archiving large foundations have formal short-term records-retention policies as required for nonprofits under the 2002 federal Sarbanes-Oxley legislation—suggesting worrisome laxity or informality with respect to institutional record-keeping within the sector.

The 2012 survey found that most large foundations without archives warehouse their historical records, at least for a time (48%), but many simply allow files to accumulate in their offices (Exhibit 1). Twenty percent of this group gave “doubt of the importance of historical records” as a major reason for not maintaining archives, but neither cost nor privacy or confidentiality was identified as a major reason. A sizeable number of foundations cited their youth as contributing to their failure to set up archives, explaining that the issue is either something they have not yet gotten to or have not needed to address thus far.


For large foundations that do have archives, the 2012 survey found that two-thirds manage them in-house; 17 percent place their historical records with independent nonprofit archive centers; 9 percent place records with a historical society, museum, or research library; and 7 percent place them with a university or college archive (Exhibit 2). An example of a very large foundation that historically managed its archives internally but recently switched to the outsourced model is the Ford Foundation. Ford selected as its repository in 2012 the Rockefeller Archive Center, which is the independent archive organization most often used by large foundations, including, since 1985, The Commonwealth Fund.


Many foundations that maintain archives put all important records in them since the foundation’s founding. Foundations generally follow traditional archiving practices in preserving program files, the foundation’s publications, public relations documents, organizational records (for example, board and committee minutes), key administrative records, and, if they produce them, photographs, documentaries, and videos. Most institutions do not archive declined proposals and no longer attempt to keep traditional archival material like officers’ calendars. External archive centers typically do not accept financial or human resources records, owing to lack of space and to processing priorities. Most foundations with archives (80%) are not preserving important e-mail correspondence, and over half are not archiving Web site information.

The survey found that the cost of archives varied with foundation size, age, and the nature of the foundation’s work. For a 94-year old, $650 million foundation with extensive intramural program operations and publications like The Commonwealth Fund, the annual costs of archives is about $100,000. The mean annual cost reported in the survey was $60,000.

Most foundations restrict researchers’ access to their archives, but nearly half will permit access if the research objective is deemed worthwhile (Exhibit 3). About a third (31%) routinely open their archives to researchers. The most common restriction is on access to administrative records.


Like other institutions, foundations see their archiving system at risk of being overwhelmed with the influx of materials. Even so, foundations with archives are staying on top of the paper flow relatively well: two-thirds say that at least 75 percent of records sent to archives have been processed Many foundations with archives are using their own information technology systems to advance archiving objectives, and some are quite advanced in doing so. But for over half, IT system improvements could improve archiving performance. Half of the foundations that currently have archives expect that, over time, their archives will be primarily electronic, and another 40 percent foresee a growing role for IT in their archiving practices (Exhibit 4).


Most foundations with assets under several billion dollars find that outsourcing their archives to an external center is more efficient than attempting to build a professional internal archives unit. The survey found that half of foundations using external archives centers find the services, overall, to be “very good” to “excellent,” and another 35 percent rate the services “satisfactory.” Echoing challenges facing the archiving profession, the chief areas of concern are timeliness in processing materials and using information technology to maximum advantage. Foundations report that researchers are well served by external archive centers.

Clearly, the state of foundation archives is a neglected “glasspockets” issue in the sector. In a follow-up blog, I will present some recommendations for improving the archiving practices of foundations.

Preparing for the Future of Philanthropy by Learning from its Past: Foundation Archives as a Vehicle for Transparency, Accountability, and Knowledge Transfer
December 20, 2012

(Emily Keller is an editorial associate in the Corporate Philanthropy department at the Foundation Center.)

Emily KellerIn recent years there has been much written about the future of philanthropy. But what about its past and what we, as a field, can collectively learn from it? On December 11, Philanthropy New York sponsored a program exploring these themes. The program, "How Will Your Foundation's Story Be Told in 100 Years: Why Archives Matter," featured insights from archivists and foundation leaders about the significance and logistical issues of creating and maintaining archive records that are timely and accessible to internal staff and the public at large.

"Foundation archives tell us how organizations are working to provide public benefits, why they succeed or fail. [They] are where we can begin to have long-term and independent assessments of the work of the philanthropic sector."
-- James Allen Smith

Established archives promote transparency by allowing the public to see inside foundations over the long term and contribute to the historical record of social and political movements, yet only a small portion of foundations have them. The discussion topics included access policies and the importance of functional data systems - both of which are needed to ensure the transparency of foundation information.

Benefits of Foundation Archives
John Craig, executive vice president and chief operating officer of The Commonwealth Fund, identified the benefits of archives as "an aid to understanding the past to wisely shape the future," as well as public accountability, providing institutional memory to new chief executives, program officers, and other foundation staff, enabling internal and external evaluations of a foundation's work, promoting institutional development and pride, exhibiting good management that extends to other responsibilities, and refuting accusations. "The sector does come under attack periodically and if you don't have archives to let people see what you did, you're often not positioned to defend yourself," Craig said.

Foundation Archive Survey Findings
Despite those benefits, a survey conducted during the fall of 2012 for the Commonwealth Fund revealed that only about 20 percent of large foundations (those with endowments of $240 million or more) maintain archives. The findings are detailed in a study that Craig initiated as a follow-up to a 1988 survey by his late colleague Kenneth Rose at Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC). Of large foundations with archives, 11 percent provide unrestricted access to all documents, 20 percent provide open access to most records with restrictions on sensitive materials, 47 percent provide access on a case-by-case basis, and 22 percent keep their archives closed. Craig describes the survey results in the report, The Archives of U.S. Foundations: An Endangered Species, which was published Dec. 20th as part of the Fund's 2012 annual report.

Access Policies
"At The Commonwealth Fund, we believe in as open access as possible," said Craig. All program files, grants, publications, and website contents are available as soon as they are processed, and governance and administrative documents and investment committee meeting minutes are available after ten years at RAC, which is located in Sleepy Hollow, New York, and also houses the archives of the Rockefeller Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Ford Foundation, and others. Appointments to conduct archival research are required at RAC. The Fund, like most foundations, does not include rejected proposals, human resources documents, or detailed financial statements such as monthly reports in their archives, although annual financial reports are available as soon as they are published, Craig said.

Nicolette Lodico, director of information management at the Ford Foundation, said the foundation transferred its entire inventory of open archival materials - which document the history of the Foundation's work from 1936 to present - to RAC beginning in April 2012. Ford's longstanding policies for its archival collections call for the "freest possible access to and use of Foundation information, without infringing on the rights of the persons who created that information or hampering the current work of the Foundation." In transferring its collections to RAC, the foundation enjoys the highest quality organization and preservation of its collections, and is assured of open, efficient access of its archival materials to researchers from across the world. At the same time, researchers enjoy access to the foundation's collections within a larger archive that houses the collections of many other key philanthropic organizations. Foundation staff members frequently refer to archival collections to reflect on and tell stories regarding the foundation's work. For example, the archives were consulted frequently in preparing for the foundation's 75th anniversary events in 2011, as well as in preparing to mark its 50 years of grantmaking in Latin America in 2012.

Jane Gorjevsky, digital assets archivist at Columbia University, where the Carnegie Corporation of New York has kept its archives since 1990, said that archives improve the accuracy of a foundation's stories, as told by themselves and others, and increase awareness of their role and social impact. "They also save the foundation's staff significant time and effort, since staff members have easy access to historical data that can be utilized for outreach, reports, and decision-making," Gorjevsky said.

The Corporation provides access to board and executive committee files, publications, and other documents at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University, where visitors can view staff and trustee files after 15 years, legal files after 20 years, and inactive grant files after 10 years. Gorjevsky said the Corporation is considering an extension to the waiting period for digital grant files to offer additional protections to grantees in response to the growing frequency of electronic information sharing, but restrictions may be lifted for a bona fide research purpose. Those files include preliminary correspondence, suggestions and critique, grant applications, interim reports, extension requests, and external evaluations, and may contain confidential information like bank account numbers, Gorjevsky said.

"The Corporation is concerned that the electronic materials' ease of distribution (combined with their ever-growing volume that makes it impossible to inspect each individual document) might pose a problem for the grantees' intellectual property rights and their privacy," Gorjevsky said. "In the pre-Internet paradigm, a researcher could view these documents in the archive (ten years after the grant has been closed) and make photocopies, but did not have an option for making documents instantly publicly accessible for the entire world."

From Archives to Accountability
James Allen Smith, vice president and director of research and education at RAC, emphasized the significance of accessible archives in capturing the historical impact of philanthropy and promoting accountability in the sector. "As more foundation archives are opened, we can begin to tell stories not just of single foundations and their individual projects but of the ways in which foundations have worked together. We can tell the stories of foundation efforts in entire fields such as agriculture, social welfare, and public health," Smith said.

"Providing access to foundation records is an important part of a foundation's public mission. Foundation archives tell us how organizations are working to provide public benefits, why they succeed or fail. Archives, I would argue, are an even more important part of our framework of accountability than 990-PFs and annual reports. Archives are where we can begin to have long-term and independent assessments of the work of the philanthropic sector," Smith said.

Logistics of Creating and Maintaining Archive Systems
Foundation archives with open access policies go a long way toward ensuring the transparency of philanthropic data, but making those systems effective requires a detailed organization and maintenance plan. Experts advise foundations that are opening their archives to the public to focus on records with permanent historical value rather than including everything; examine the benefits of outsourcing the project versus keeping it in-house; avoid backlogs in data processing, which are often several years long; and develop a plan for holding digital data created with various hardware and software programs that may be on the verge of obsolescence.

Craig said the digital revolution poses big challenges to archivists, given uncertainties about the permanence of digital records and rapid changes in technology, but that it should ultimately improve the capacity to archive records in a timely way and facilitate access to them. Thus, he suggests, the digital revolution should spur more foundations to maintain archives.

How do you think an increase in foundation archives would benefit the sector and society at large? What data would you like to see in their collections? How should foundations design their access policies to maximize transparency while protecting grantee and foundation privacy? Please share your thoughts below.

Foundation Archive Resource List

--Emily Keller

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  • Transparency Talk, the GlassPockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Candid highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

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