Nonprofit Institutional Memory

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on March 3rd, 2016 in Thoughts & Commentary

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It is amazing how few organizations—and individuals—understand institutional memory—what it is, its value-add and how to use it.  So, instead of using it well and wisely, they allow it to be misused to the detriment of the organization.

Perhaps it is easiest to start with what institutional memory is not.

  1. It is not a person—ever, not even the longest-serving person on your board or staff; it isn’t even a founder
  2. It is not “We’ve tried that before
  3. It is not “But that is not how we have always done it.”

So, what is it?  It is a collective set of facts and experiences about the evolution of, in this case, an organization.  It is a written record that paints a broad brush-stroke picture of the organization’s origins through its lifecycles, up to the present, noting its high and low points and major accomplishments along the way.  It is absolutely not the minutia.

Nor is it the biased recollection of one or two, but the collectively built story that is added on to with successive generations of the organization’s storytellers.  It is the important history that must get shared with new staff, board members and other volunteers so that they can understand where the organization has been, while providing them with a context for determining where the organization still needs to go.  It should never be an albatross or restraint, but rather one of many tools for helping to chart the next iteration of the organization—which may look nothing like what it was.

We know that stagnant entities are dying ones, so to think that we do an organization a favor by keeping it firmly locked in its past is a huge mistake.  We must have the wisdom (and institutional memory helps here) to know what must be kept from before and what is an interesting part of our past but is no longer relevant to what are and need to be today.  In this conversation, it is imperative to identify those items of our past that are the sacred cows and, thus, cannot be touched.  But in truth, there are generally very few sacred cows, if any, beyond an organization’s core values.  And honestly, if we can touch them, they were not core values to begin with.

If your institutional memory isn’t written down—be it in narrative form or a simple timeline—then capture it immediately.  As summer is approaching, this is a great project for a summer intern majoring in journalism, writing or marketing.  Arm that intern with a recording device, current contact information for people of the past and send him/her out to collect the data and then write the story.  And then keep it updated.

The story of how we got to where we are today—regardless of the shape of today—is invaluable to our present and future.  It should not be lost, nor reside in human brains nor be ignored, if properly told.  Organizations that accept a false understanding of institutional memory actually discourage progress and innovation, preferring to have their organizations live in the comfort (and only comfortable because it is known) of the past rather than chart a new, unknown and, presumably, better course.  I would hope that even founders would want it this way.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.