Philanthropy Blog: Trash or Treasure?

August 13, 2015

Hemenway & Barnes is moving its offices in a few short weeks—no small task given the fact that we’ve been in the same building for the last 37 years. I alone have 16 years worth of files on grantees of foundations we manage, notes on issues our clients care about, and handouts from dozens of different conferences.

Sifting and sorting all that material was not only a trip down memory lane—packing has unearthed rolodexes, paper planners and palm pilots–but also revealed how the practice of philanthropy has grown and changed over that time. In the early years of my career, few nonprofits had websites. I saved every annual report, because that was how nonprofits communicated their programs and impact. It was also how foundations listed their guidelines and grants. I have folders full of articles on the big philanthropic topics of the last two decades, from 9/11 and Katrina responses, to climate change and education reform.

It was only in the last decade that Guidestar became a robust resource for financial and governance information; before that, printouts of IRS Form 990s were safely filed away in hard copy. I also have my go-to resources, like the now out-of-print Grantmakers Basics book that I dog-eared in my early days as a program officer, studying how to do due diligence on a grant application and conduct a site visit with an applicant.

I also have the benefit of historical files on the gifts made by foundations and trusts from decades past. Notes from a Trustees meeting in the 1990s? Got it. Memo after a visit to a grantee, long before email? I know what happened. Importantly, my predecessors carefully documented conversations and correspondence about a particular naming opportunity or program, to help round out the picture of cumulative impact from a donor. I also have grant agreement and payment letters for every grant made by a client foundations, some as recently as last year and others dating back decades.

I’m grateful for that paper trail. In the age of email, I fear those conversations that show donor intent—what she really wanted to give to and how a particular gift evolved—may not get the careful documentation I have inherited and was trained to complete. Our world and the speed of business moves at a faster pace than it did decades ago. We need to continue the legacy of thoughtful documentation of giving strategies and implementation. Careful files should contain notes that ensure gifts are properly understood, structured and details are adhered to by all parties. Whether files are electronic or paper, we still need the documentation.

So I save some paper, and I start more electronic files. I discard the information that I know is duplicated online. And I am committed to ensure that what someone needs 37 years from now will be as carefully documented, electronically or on paper, as our predecessors taught us.

About the Author

Gioia Perugini is Associate Director, Family Office and Philanthropy Services at Hemenway & Barnes. She works with individuals, families, advisors, charitable trusts and foundations to provide a range of philanthropic and client services.

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