Dr Georgina Brewis is a historian of voluntary action, youth and education at the Institute of Education, University of London. She has just completed a book on the history of student volunteering and is now working on a study of voluntary action during famine in Ethiopia in the mid 1980s.
NCVO recently reported on a British Academy grant which will support voluntary organisations to preserve their archives, a five year project led by the Institute of Education in partnership with NCVO and Northumbria University. I’ve been delighted with the number of charities who have already expressed interest in the project, ‘Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare’.
Here are eight reasons why voluntary organisations should take an interest in their own history.
1. Demonstrate your long-term impact
Archives can reveal the long-term impact of an organisation on a particular issue or community, and changes resulting from an organisation’s work over time. Striking examples are the record of 140,000 lives saved by the RNLI since its foundation, or stories from the archives of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement.
2. Inform your current work
Explorations of a charity’s history can be a way to stimulate discussion around current issues, for example poverty, disability or racism, raising the profile of the organisation’s work in that area today. In 2012 Scope used their 60th anniversary to launch a campaign to share stories by disabled people and their families about changes they would like to see in the future.
3. Show commitment to an issue, group or community over time
If charities are accused of ‘mission drift’, being able to prove long-standing involvement with causes and communities can help. Organisations also have a responsibility to their beneficiaries or service users; in many cases their lives may not have been recorded elsewhere. The Children’s Society’s Hidden Lives Revealed resource is an important account of the children in its care in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
4. Engage with local or national commemorations and anniversaries
The on-going commemorations of the First World War owe much to the availability of stories, images and documents from archive collections. In recent weeks London Zoo has opened an exhibition about the Zoo at War, and the archivist of Blind Veterans UK took part in Radio 4’s In Touch programme about changes to blind people’s lives since the War.
5. Celebrate the contribution of staff, trustees and volunteers
Stories about people who have been involved with an organisation in the past can inspire current generations of staff and volunteers. For example, Toynbee Hall investigates the contributions of some of its famous former residents who went on to bring about radical social change.
6. Help you understand how and why services were delivered differently in the past
Examining previous ways of working – what worked and what didn’t – can help when developing strategies for the future. NCVO’s papers, held at the London Metropolitan Archives, chart the changing relationship between the voluntary sector and government over nearly 100 years.
7. Support fundraising, values and your charity’s brand
Archives can help differentiate between organisations. Images or stories can be used to add colour to a fundraising bid or reinforce values and branding.
8. Show the value of the voluntary sector and volunteers to wider society
The archives of UK voluntary organisations are of great significance for social, political and cultural history; they can enhance knowledge and understanding of British society and relations with the wider world.
Some collections have won international recognition, such as the Royal Voluntary Service’s UNESCO UK Memory of the World Status, which puts its records on a par with the Domesday Book. Some organisations, often with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, have created educational resources enabling schools and the wider public to explore social issues over time, such as the changing role of women in society (National Union of Women Teachers archive at the Institute of Education).
Project next steps
Over the next five years, through knowledge-exchange events and tailored resources, the British Academy grant will support voluntary organisations that own or look after archive material to plan the preservation, care and development of their archive collection.
The project will create a new bank of digitised source materials telling the story of voluntary sector engagement with welfare provision in the 1940s. From 2015, interested charities will be invited to take part in a series of events and we will prepare guidance on how they can identify and select documents for submission to the source bank. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to be added to a mailing list to receive more information. If you have comments and suggestions about what you would find useful, please leave a comment below.
Resources for voluntary organisations
- The website of the Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives contains useful resources and information about archives and where to go for more help, including two guides for the sector produced in 2013 in partnership with The National Archives.
- The Charity Archivists and Records Managers group (CHARM), also provide information about the care and management of charity archives.
- Matthew McMurray, Charity Archives in the 21st Century, Report published by Royal Voluntary Service, 2014