Don’t Forget the Ark

Last week, I wrote about why there is a structural need for philanthropy infrastructure organizations: because the staff of grantmaking organizations are distributed across many individual organizations, and don’t have a consistent pipeline or curriculum to learn their craft.

A corollary of this structural condition is that it is very difficult to maintain institutional memory. The consequences of this were brought home for me with particular force today as I participated in a quarterly Ford Foundation staff tour of the Rockefeller Archive Center. This remarkable institution, nestled on bucolic hillsides in Hudson County, NY, houses the archives of the Ford, Rockefeller, Russell Sage, William T. Grant, and several other foundations that were established in the early part of the 20th century. They have 115 million pages of material. One hundred and fifteen MILLION pages. The mind reels.

I’m only a little embarrassed to say that I had a shiver of literal awe when we came to the room where these file cabinets are housed:

Ford Foundation grant files, Rockefeller Archive Center

These are the reels of microfilm that contain the grant files of the Ford Foundation from the mid 1950s to the mid 2000s. The data that are in here! The knowledge! The lessons learned! What a treasure.

And yet, like the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I had a vision of this treasure lost to time. That’s how we’re treating the history of philanthropy. We embark on new strategies without learning what’s been done before. That’s why as Ford is operationalizing our new strategy, we’re including deep dives into our past practice.

So let me make an invitation, particularly to new donors and those setting up foundations. Check out the website of the Rockefeller Archive Center.  Better yet, try using the search function with terms that are relevant to your work. The lovely people at the Center can help you get a hold of relevant materials that you pull up. They can even PDF things for you if you’re not able to come visit. As I learned from a stimulating afternoon of conversation, they’re also extremely informed about the contents of the archive and the history of philanthropy. They can cite, chapter and verse, reports that are relevant to your topic, or name the years in which one of the foundations in the collection went through a major strategy refresh. You’ll come away with a deeper appreciation of how far we’ve and how far we have to go – and with lots of useful reading!

And then, if there are topics around which you think it would be useful to convene scholars of philanthropy who are using the archive, let me know. I’d love to work with you and the folks at the Center to see what we might make happen.

Happy hunting in the archives!


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