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

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.

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