Institutional Memory – Lest We Forget

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Your nonprofit has a history of funding from a variety of foundations, a few local businesses, maybe a special-purpose state grant. Congratulations. Now a new person takes the proposal writer’s chair, it’s time for reports and renewals, so the newbie asks the basic questions: “Did we get a grant from the XYZ Foundation? How much? When? Who did we work with over there?”


The questions are met with echoing silence throughout the organization. The recently-departed proposal writer has moved out of town; the board members claim they never saw the details of the grant; the executive director thinks she remembers somebody named Terwilliger (quick research reveals no such person associated with XYZ).


Since cuneiform tablets were stacked in (what is now) Iraq in the 7th century BCE, we’ve tried to keep track of our information by writing it down and putting it somewhere we could go back to. Those ancients would have loved spreadsheets and CRMs and DBMS and all the tools of contemporary records-keeping. These days, there’s really no reason for a nonprofit to lose the data about a grant.


But there are excuses. Nobody remembered to enter the stuff in the first place. We entered it but we changed operating systems and we lost a lot of files. The former proposal writer set all the passwords and we can’t figure them out. We’re always so busy we don’t have time to keep track of our work.


For a very small organization it might be enough for the executive director to keep up-to-date records: copies of proposals, award letters, evaluation reports, final reports, etc., all of it probably in files that would fit on a flash drive or a USB stick (just don’t lose it!). But as soon as the agency grows its staff, programs and funding prospects (and partners), it’s time to invest in a data management system that is accessible, can grow with the nonprofit and can be actually used by the people it’s intended for.


Institutional memory, of course, is much more than a trail of transactions. It is the accumulated concepts and experiences and methods of an organization. In the matter of interactions with funders, we forget our history at peril – we might not be able to repeat it.


Thomas Boyd is Chief Editorial Consultant for The Grantsmanship Center
and an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations.

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