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Your Organization’s Archives Could Be a Treasure Trove of Donor Intent

by Brittany Kienker, Ph.D.  //  photo credit: Rockefeller Archive Center

In considering how to best navigate modern-day institutional challenges, board members and staff may ask, “What did the founder intend for this program?” or “Is this what the donor really wanted?” Whether you are looking forward or backward in your organization, historical data can provide fascinating answers to these questions and many others.

Early in my career as a researcher, I often found myself in museums and historical archives digging through countless boxes of paperwork. While looking through archival material for information on the Ford family’s philanthropic roots for my dissertation, I learned that a variety of documents can be a gold mine for researchers and staff seeking to better understand philanthropists and their organizations. Correspondence, reports, financial statements, legal files, and other important documents are saved in these collections and tell a detailed story of organizations’ philanthropic evolution. Each piece of documentation is like the piece of a puzzle that when put together gives a more complete picture of the organization, its history, and the motivations for philanthropic and operational decisions.

Whether you are searching for the original inspiration of a founder or wondering how to develop a philanthropic legacy of your own, there are certain types of “data” that are particularly useful to those looking into an institution’s past. While your organization may have a record retention policy that requires you keep various documents for legal purposes, I suggest you go beyond those requirements to consider creating your own historical archive built with many documents you may already have or will create in the future.

Legal Documents
When I was researching the philanthropic history of the Ford family, the “holy grail” of my research was finding a copy of Henry Ford’s will! That document and related paperwork outlined the general purpose of his philanthropic giving, including the origins of the Ford Foundation. Likewise, incorporation documents for the organizations he created, whether nonprofit or foundation in form, were also extremely important to understanding the original form and function of these institutions. Along with incorporation documents, another key legal document is your organization’s application for tax exemption. It should be maintained and accessible at all times, as it must be provided to any member of the public upon request. (If you cannot find your copy, one can be requested from the IRS.) Most philanthropic organizations will have legal documents that provide a structured set of information that need to be preserved over time, whether in a lawyer’s office, a safe, or an archive housed locally or within a university.

Each piece of documentation is like the piece of a puzzle that when put together gives a more complete picture of the organization, its history, and the motivations for philanthropic and operational decisions.

Board Minutes and Related Documents
While board secretaries may bemoan writing out the minutes for each board meeting, the minutes serve as a highly valuable record of an institution’s history. Key individuals, events, programs, and decisions are likely to make an appearance in the packets of information created exclusively for board members. Whether you have hundreds of staff or are entirely volunteer run, board documents should be maintained beyond legal requirements because they can be a critical reference point, especially if you find your organization often relying on the memories of veteran staff and board members.

Financial Reports
While the numbers or finances of an organization are often considered the “boring” aspect of the work, many overlook the incredible stories they tell. Summary financial reports, grant ledgers, donation lists, and other financial documents can reveal activities, decisions, and trends over time. I found that creating my own reports from this data further illustrated patterns of strengths and weaknesses throughout the organization, especially when combined with information from other historical source material.

Annual Reports
Annual reports serve as a tremendous resource to understand an institution’s evolution. With year-by-year reporting structures that (ideally) continue to follow a similar format, it is clear how missions and programs change over time and how important financials fit within the context of the organization’s activities. For grantmaking organizations and those with limited staff support that do not necessarily produce annual reports, keeping long-term records of awarded grants serves as an equally valuable resource for future staff and researchers.

Personal Correspondence and Oral Histories
In conducting historical research, I found correspondence between philanthropists and their acquaintances to provide fascinating information about their motivations, decisions, and outcomes. If you are looking to preserve your own philanthropic legacy, you may find that using a letter format (or previous correspondence) that express donor intent to be an important part of building your historical archive. Some philanthropists intentionally write letters to communicate their philanthropic intentions and wishes to future generations, while founders of some organizations have left behind video recordings or oral histories to preserve this information.

Context is Key
Ultimately, using historical information requires placing this type of data within its proper context. A philanthropist who gained his wealth in the 1860s will have a much different perspective and the resulting organization will look rather different from an organization created immediately after the Tax Reform Act of 1969. Likewise, a modern-day family looking to develop a philanthropic legacy of their own will have unique reasons to give and a variety of options that are currently available for how they conduct their giving. Understanding the who, what, where, when, why, and how related to historical data and the organization itself is paramount to using this information appropriately.

Organizations should not keep every piece of paperwork or correspondence, but historical data may offer insights and opportunities for modern-day staff, board members, and interested individuals to explore philanthropy in new and fascinating ways. By looking to historical records and proactively creating and archiving similar types of current documents, organizations and the individuals involved in them now and for years to come will be better prepared for future challenges and possibilities.


Photo: Brittany Kienker

Brittany Kienker, Ph.D. is Principal and Owner at Kienker Consulting in southeastern Michigan. She also serves as the lead researcher for Ask CMF, a technical assistance service of the Council of Michigan Foundations, as well as an adjunct professor in Central Michigan University’s Master of Science in Administration – Philanthropy and Fundraising program. Dr. Kienker received her Ph.D. in Philanthropic Studies from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She also earned a M.A. in Philanthropic Studies (Indiana University), M.A. in Public History (Indiana University), and B.A. in Public History (Western Michigan University).

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