March 30, 2017
Publisher’s Note: This article originally appeared on HistPhil as part of a forum focused on archives and knowledge management in philanthropy. We’re republishing the article now because of World Backup Day on March 31st, which is an annual reminder to backup important online documents and memories. IssueLab stores critical thought and research outcomes from social sector organizations, making them accessible to all. Why republish this for World Backup Day? Because without IssueLab, it could seem like much of the social sector’s knowledge suddenly crashed. Read on to learn about the benefits of open archiving and the importance of foundations embracing open archiving, letting others benefit from and build on what has already been learned.
At their best, foundations exist for the public’s benefit, either by issuing grants to those who work on some aspect of social change or by researching and enacting their own strategies for the lasting betterment of society. One of the most valuable and enduring outcomes of this work is the knowledge that is gained along the way, including conference proceedings from grantee convenings, feasibility studies, case studies, and program evaluations. These knowledge outcomes, paid for with philanthropic dollars either through grants or contracts, contain critical data, challenge current thinking, and provide information that has the potential to illuminate new ways forward for even the most entrenched social problems, making them useful to a wide range of social change agents. As the product of foundation dollars that are invested for public benefit, they too are a public good.
Year after year, foundations repeat this cycle of knowledge production, testing, and evaluation; typically, the last step of the cycle is to informally publish findings to the Web with no further thought about, or plan for, preservation. Yet, when we view this collection of data, facts, and ideas over time and across philanthropy, it becomes clear that this is much more than a collection of stand-alone knowledge products. Foundation dollars have created a historic record of social change that details successful and failed strategies and names the people and organizations that have played a role in social change over the decades.
In this article, we explore this preservation opportunity, question where the responsibility for preserving this body of knowledge lies, and evaluate what types of preservation mechanisms can and should be deployed given the nature of this knowledge. We argue that an open archiving approach is required to ensure that foundation-funded knowledge continues to serve social change efforts and the public good.
Knowledge in Service of Social Change
Foundations create and fund new knowledge for a number of reasons: exploring new areas for grantmaking; developing new programs, funding initiatives, and funding strategies; investigating how best to fund a new geographic region; assessing the work of grantees; and evaluating a foundation’s own programs and strategies. This knowledge has a large effect on the direction of social change—where dollars will be spent, what types of strategies will be tried, and which projects will receive further funding.
Unfortunately, too many foundations don’t make the questions, insights, and analysis generated by this knowledge work consistently available to other funders, or to interested parties, who could potentially use it to further their own philanthropy-related work. Too often philanthropic dollars are committed to answering the same questions and offering the same analyses, instead of building on the experience and knowledge of colleagues and grantees.
Consider a funded project meant to assist youth in gaining technology-related skills after school, which failed in an urban setting. Insights gathered from that project could be useful material for a funder who is contemplating supporting the same type of project but in a rural setting. If a system, such as a preservation network, existed that continuously shared what foundations know about what does and doesn’t work, it would enable philanthropists to understand successes and failures in useful ways.
The Current State of Social Change Knowledge Production and Preservation
The philanthropic grant cycle includes a number of points at which knowledge is created: the grant application itself; the evaluation of outcomes related to a specific project or initiative; landscape scans that precede the launch of a new strategy or initiative; reports summarizing funded convenings and conferences; and the commissioned and funded research and “lessons learned” which make up much of what we think of as the sector’s literature.
Currently this knowledge is captured and preserved through a mix of internal and external processes and systems that rely on grants management software, internal file storage systems (eg., Sharepoint), research and publications sections of a foundation’s website, and the ubiquitous “shared drive”. Many foundations still struggle with sharing lessons internally across programs and initiatives and take a largely PR approach to sharing knowledge externally, sharing only what they determine to be the “best” knowledge products. Finally, a growing number of foundations are sharing their knowledge at the very end point of its life cycle by outsourcing their archiving function to university-based or privately run archives to manage, many of which provide only limited in-person access to portions of a foundation’s knowledge assets.
Who is Responsible for Social Change Knowledge Preservation?
One of the persistent challenges in openly preserving philanthropic knowledge is that the responsibility for this work doesn’t just lie with one institutional player or professional role. The work of open knowledge, like open knowledge itself, is both collective and distributed. In lieu of a formal publishing or journal system, the execution of open knowledge collection, preservation, and sharing efforts in the social sector is a shared responsibility that includes the foundations that fund knowledge production, the nonprofits who produce knowledge, the archives that house foundations’ historical records, and the many individuals within these institutions who touch this knowledge as it moves through our organizations. This includes grants managers, program officers, foundation lawyers, foundation librarians, knowledge and evaluation officers, communications officers, archivists, nonprofit researchers, evaluators, and external content aggregators, and repositories. Naturally, we all focus on our particular piece of the system, our own organizational goals, and the needs of our own users. But what falls between the cracks of all these roles is the responsibility for openness.
While no one person or institution is responsible for open preservation, the fact is that some players in this “preservation network” have greater influence over the health of the system than others. If knowledge and knowledge products are the capital that flows through this network, some institutions are simply in a better position to facilitate that flow than others. We argue that those institutions are foundations.
In order for archives and repositories to easily and consistently collect, index, curate, and share the knowledge generated by the social sector, we need foundations not just to cooperate with open knowledge systems but to actively participate in them. Too much energy, time, and money are wasted on small projects focused on archiving a portion of knowledge. The sector needs to invest in a system that routinely captures knowledge as it is produced and that harvests, indexes, and preserves our vast back catalog of knowledge.
The responsibility for preserving and sharing what foundations are learning may rely on a collective effort, but in order for that collective effort to reach scale, the foundations who fund and produce this knowledge for the express purpose of further leveraging their investment dollars must participate a bit differently than they have in the past.
What Does Greater Participation Look Like?
It is impossible to anticipate all of the ways that we will make use of openly shared data and knowledge products in years to come. Many of us could not have imagined what we are seeing today in the areas of machine learning, auto-indexing, and large-scale digital archiving, let alone the engaging and dynamic ways in which people are aggregating, curating, synthesizing, and remixing historical content to inform us not just about our past but also about our current-day dilemmas and directions. What we need to do today is to create the enabling conditions for that kind of information mining and curation. Without a doubt, funding the infrastructure for open archiving and repositories is one way for foundations to participate. But perhaps more important are the ways in which they can participate as funders and producers of knowledge themselves.
The two simplest ways that foundations and the nonprofits they fund can participate is through the open licensing of the work they fund, commission, and produce, and through the sharing of that work with open repositories and archives. This would mean that foundations would not only share knowledge on their own websites, but would also enable other players in the system to collect, repurpose, and share that knowledge in new ways. Archives that serve foundations could share reports and evaluations now, not ten years from now. Open repositories could leverage the collection and indexing work of those archives to further curate and share reports and evaluations with other foundations and nonprofits who are facing similar decisions and implementation obstacles. They could also share with other repositories in their networks who reach their own unique audiences of practitioners. In other words, these seemingly small acts can better enable the flow of valuable knowledge through open and distributed systems.
In addition to openly licensing newly produced knowledge and sharing a copy with open repositories and archives, foundations can also take a second look at how their current archiving strategies are, or are not, open. They might ask themselves: are there knowledge products in our collection that could be released publicly now, instead of in three/five/ten years time? Can the archiving partner we have chosen to work with offer open access to a at least a portion of our collection and/or can they connect to other public and open archives? And finally, how can the foundation support the development of that capacity for openness with their chosen partners?
The evidence and insights that are currently hidden in foundation archives and scattered across foundation websites represent an invaluable historical record and one of the sector’s greatest assets. Philanthropy already accepts responsibility for addressing public problems with private dollars. The challenge we now face is to act on our responsibility to make the knowledge that results from those same dollars accessible and useful to the public in perpetuity.
 Grant proposals often capture the experience and knowledge of organizations working in the field through the needs statements, logic models, and strategies articulated by grantseekers.