Beeston’s Blog: “Philanthropy Archives – And Why They Matter”

On Fridays we regularly feature blogs on issues that are currently trending or topical in the not-for-profit sector from philanthropy advisor and author, Emma Beeston of the Emma Beeston Consultancy, and Sarah Taragon and Stephen Woollett of Clarity CIC, an organisation that enables social purpose organisations, including community groups, charities and social enterprises to be effective, sustainable and well-run.

Today’s blog is provided by Emma and considers why retaining and developing a system for effectively archiving information is important.

“Philanthropy archives – and why they matter” by Emma Beeston

“Perhaps, like me, you have not given much thought to what charities, foundations and philanthropists do with all the materials they have gathered over the years. A recent conversation with Jayne Lacny shed light on why philanthropy archives matter. As a consultant with Notes on Philanthropy, Jayne supports her clients to work out what to do with all those papers and data and where best to locate them. She is a passionate advocate for archives and the treasures within – from the history of fundraising before the NHS to the joy of reading the letters of a grumpy Victorian philanthropist.

Here I share some of Jayne’s expertise and why she thinks we should all give archives more attention

When is a box of files in the corner an archive?

Jayne: it is the point when you agree what is going to happen to these materials in the long-term. You decide which of your papers and digital records you will keep and agree a simple contract setting out who is going to look after them. This will cover their safe storage and what access the public and researchers can have. Archives come in all shapes and sizes from the National Archives at Kew to local history centres and museums. Some charities even set up their own archives, for example the White Ribbon Association has a collection on the temperance movement.

Why don’t we think about archives more?

Jayne: there are a variety of reasons why people fail to put their materials somewhere safe. They end up destroying them or shoving them into a dark corner of a building and leaving them to rot. They do nothing because they:

  1. Lack time to sort the materials out.
  2. Lack money.
  3. Don’t see the importance of keeping this information for future generations.
  4. Don’t want to lose control of their materials.
  5. Feel guilty diverting time and effort away from their operational work.
  6. Don’t want anyone looking at their private papers – especially true for family foundations, and/or
  7. Don’t know where to start or what to do.

People don’t realise that archiving does not cost a huge amount and that there is help available to advise on GDPR and to catalogue your information and you can say what material gets released to the public and when.

Why do philanthropy archives matter?

Jayne: they provide evidence of the past that we can learn from. We can research the influence of philanthropy and how it has evolved. We can understand more about giving, about impact, about the history of fundraising, the role of women in philanthropy and the generosity of donors. We can call upon first hand testimony from letters, reports, memos, notes, photos and films. As well as giving us facts and dates we can uncover stories. Without archives these stories would be lost. My plea to all charities, foundations and donors is to act today. Carry out an oral history project so that the experiences of older family members or charity staff are captured. And put your information into an archive so that future researchers don’t come across great big gaps because we did not take action to preserve our stories.

“My conversation with Jayne made me realise that if charities and philanthropists don’t keep these valuable materials then the voice of our sector and its importance will be missed – our history will belong to the private and public sectors.  These records enable us to examine problematic links to empire as well as helping us celebrate the good philanthropy has achieved. Archives hold the stories of our sector and help us to understand our past and how this has shaped our present.”

Image: Emma Beeston of the Emma Beeston Consultancy. Emma’s new book “Advising Philanthropists: Principles and Practice” is available now from the Directory of Social Change website. We have a copy in the GRIN office and recommend it as an essential read for anyone interested in philanthropy and giving.