Thinking today like an historian of tomorrow

I had an interesting conversation with folks at the Atlantic Philanthropies the other day. Atlantic has announced it will spend out its endowment and close up shop - something it is working on quite publicly. One of its concerns is how to make sure that the work it has funded can be used by others.

Now, I entered philanthropy through the side door of a historian-in-training. My interests in grad school (and still today) were in questions of public and private - what's what and who decides? While reading history on the Reconstruction South I became particularly intrigued by philanthropic giving of Northern whites to help educate blacks. I realized that American public schooling held a long, convoluted, not-well-told history of philanthropic involvement and activism. I  went on to write my dissertation about philanthropic giving in the San Francisco public schools in the decades prior to the passage of Proposition 13.

It was not an interest in foundations that led me to this work, it was an interest in how we, as a society, decide what we will support with public dollars (and what we won't). Schooling was an obvious place to look, but you could also turn to public health, social welfare, criminal justice, higher education - almost every public system in the U.S. has a history that involves private dollars, either commercial or philanthropic or both.

So when asked how to think about Atlantic's legacy - how it should store, categorize, apply metadata and search optimization tools to its records - the only advice I could come up with was to think like an historian. How will someone even know to look for the work of this long-gone foundation 50 or 100 years from now? Will it be through a biographical interest in the founder? A historical interest in the Affordable Care Act (one of many issues Atlantic has funded)? And if the foundation is to shut down, how will information catalogued with today's tools be updated for tomorrow's search mechanisms?

There are, of course, professionals who know how to catalogue, preserve, and store information for use in the future, they're called librarians and archivists. So few foundations have made their records available (exceptions can be found at the Rockefeller Archive Center and at Indiana University, and grant making histories of larger foundations exist in the database of The Foundation Center) that our historical knowledge of philanthropy is largely limited to the small universe of organizations whose records are available. See Olivier Zunz's 2011 history, Philanthropy In America, for both a view that extends beyond the few well-archived institutions and a sense of what we're missing.

As foundations begin sharing more information publicly and digitally perhaps they will also begin to think about where their records live on. After all, their tweets are with Twitter and the Library of Congress, Facebook owns their pages (as its does everyone who uses its services), and their tax forms are public record (and, someday, may be easy to access). So what of the material contributions they're making now to the issues they fund - whether it's support for free enterprise or the Affordable Care Act? What of the research they fund, the organizations they support, the evaluations they use, or the collaborations and advocacy initiatives of which they are part?

Future historians looking to understand the issues that today's foundations work on will need to be able to find traces of philanthropy in the archives and documentary history of those issues or they'll never look any further. Whether it's healthcare, immigration reform, marriage equality, or charter schooling the future history of philanthropy will be written within the issues it funds. The time to think about how that history will be found is now.

5 comments:

Alexis Smith Macklin said...

Great post, Lucy! Thanks for the shout-out to librarians and archivist. As the director of a regional archive at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh - I have been trying to document the work of our local foundations. In addition to being historically relevant - they are valuable because they help us strategize and be more productive about how we use limited resources. We have the collections of several of our local foundations and it would be great to have more. My biggest obstacle is that we make these records public to anyone who wants them . . . and this level of transparency can be difficult.

Suki O'Kane said...

This is timely, thanks. I've been thinking about how small steps can support the preservation of institutional memory / impact for spend down organizations. Something as simple as a shared grants management system -- using today's options with tomorrow's pricing ;)-- could allow future orgs to consider strategy and outcomes in longitudinally. Thinking today like a historian could result in recreation of the commons, and new alliances between emerging, churning and sunsetting philanthropies to create and use common data repositories.

Elizabeth Cahill, Senior Web Strategist said...

Great post, Lucy, and thanks for talking with Atlantic and the folks at A Hundred Years who are helping us with the final phase of our digital platforms.

Your comment about thinking like a future historian has helped us to focus on how to tag and curate our data so others can glean some meaningful insights long after we close our doors.

We'll follow comments on this post for additional insights as well!

Joelle O'Reilly-Hyland said...

Thanks for sharing this Lucy. This is very interesting and informative. This would raise the value of both the old and future historians. I guess historians and philanthropists have lots in common.

Gabriela Fitz said...

Alexis and Suki, you hit the nail directly on the head regarding the value of archiving and *sharing* what foundations and nonprofits are up to! This kind of work not only helps us to understand and value past activities but is crucial to shaping the strategies we select today.

I actually waited to respond to this post because we were just finishing up work on a project with - you guessed it, Atlantic Philanthropies - that speaks so directly to the necessity of thinking like a historian. The project is a special collection of research from nonprofits and foundations addressing the issue of Access to Palliative Care. http://palliativecare.issuelab.org

This project is especially relevant to this conversation on archiving because as Atlantic begins to wind down its grant making activities it is looking to share what it, and its grantees, have learned along the way. By collecting, indexing and freely sharing this knowledge through IssueLab (which is a service of the Foundation Center) Atlantic doesn't just preserve its own legacy, it also lays the ground for the ongoing cultivation of these ideas and efforts.

Our hope and ambition is that not just spend-down foundations, but all foundations, begin to value and treat their knowledge as both a public good and as part of our collective intelligence about creating social change. This means not just archiving their knowledge but also making it readily and publicly accessible for others to learn from! Projects like this one on Palliative Care are moving in just that direction.