By digging into the history of your organisation, you can uncover and connect with the passions, commitment and energy that contributed to the early stages and later growth. Yes, each organisation will have a history – no matter how long-ago or recently the organisation came into existence.
History is defined as the study of past events: the past considered as a whole. Living history means that the past is used to inform the present; and the present is used as a basis for planning the future. The present and future are history in the making, and people in organisations should be making sure that the people who come along after them will have a historical record to ‘dig into’.
In April of 2004, I visited the Greek Island of Santorini, classically known as Thera, and quickly became enthralled with the landscape, seascape and history. My treasured book Fire in the Sea (by Walter L Friedrich) states that “the Island erupted dramatically in the seventeenth century BC, producing one of the largest explosions ever witnessed by humankind. The event covered Bronze Age settlements on the island with volcanic ash and altered the course of civilization in the region”. We travelled by bus to the thrilling and extensive excavations at Akrotiri, and were able to walk through, marvel at and appreciate a re-discovered Bronze Age settlement!
This experience started me thinking about organisations that ‘do things differently’ or ‘do different things’ compared with ‘how’ or ‘what’ new committee members, staff or service-users expected. My vivid memory of Akrotiri is that the excavations revealed an age, customs and lifestyle for me to wonder about and marvel at. I could imagine people moving about in their daily activities and relationships. And I have to admit that I was amazed at the level of sophistication that was obvious among the excavations.
But I still needed to buy the books and read about their wider world – the things going on ‘out there’ that affected these people in ways and to an extent they couldn’t appreciate.
I thought of the saying about the benefit of hindsight – being able to review or recall past events and relationships with the benefit of current knowledge, understanding and wisdom.
Looking at the history of an organisation provides a basis for both subjective and objective analysis – with the benefit of hindsight. People of today can explore events, incidents and experiences with the benefit of their current knowledge, understanding and wisdom. They will learn more about the passions, commitment and energy that gave birth to their own organisation, contributed to its establishment and growth and enabled it to continue – sometimes in the face of considerable or overwhelming odds against survival.
Valuing history is an exercise in suspending judgment. Hindsight can give us a sense of being in a position to approve or disapprove. However, if we suspend judgment, we also suspend the right to approve or disapprove. We simply acknowledge and appreciate the effort, passion and experiences of the past that have given us the present.
The responsibility of the present is to plan the future – and the benefit of examining the past should ensure a measure of wisdom in planning, choosing and deciding the future.
The means of examining your organisation’s history are many and varied, and include:
- oral and anecdotal history – listening to and recording the stories of people who have been involved with or have observed the organisation in the recent to distant past
- written history – reading through documents, letters, newspaper articles, etc., about the organisation through its lifetime
- graphic history – gathering photographs, images, drawings, diagrams, illustrations of any nature and kind that capture an aspect of the organisation’s people, places and activities
- legal and factual history – searching through Committee or Board minutes, correspondence (from paper-based through to electronic), annual reports, financial records, newsletters, etc., that reveal the official history
An Archaeological Dig project for your organisation?
If your organisation hasn’t already commenced the process, encourage your colleagues to consider initiating an ‘archaeological dig’.
The process will require interest and commitment from a small group of people, access to historical documents and records, introduction to people who can fill in gaps from and about the past – and access to a budget allocation to fund the process and the outcome.
Of course, there will be an outcome… a booklet, an exhibition, a celebration, a capsule that will be deposited somewhere safe for a far-future ‘dig’, a theatrical presentation – perhaps even a musical!
Privacy and confidentiality will be an issue, so be sure to treat these very seriously.
Accuracy may be a factor – it should be found in the legal and factual aspects, but needn’t be a factor in the other components of the project. Perception is truth – how people perceived the organisation at different times in its history will be their understanding of fact.
At Akrotiri, we walked through several of the winding streets in this Bronze Age settlement, and there were surprises at each turn. We saw features within the settlement that spoke of individual differences and styles. And I could imagine the differences in age, personalities, behaviours, habits, expectations, and contribution to the Settlement’s peace, security and prosperity among the people who made up the Settlement.
In my reading that followed my visit, there wasn’t any attempt to judge: simply to unravel and acknowledge the passion, commitment and energy available to the Settlement from and among the people who lived there for however long they
stayed. Some stayed for a lifetime (however brief), and others stayed on their way to or from somewhere else.
No matter how many years your organisation has been in existence, there have been requirements for records of information, activity, transactions, negotiations, statistics, decisions, etc., to be introduced, updated, maintained and protected. Such requirements may have been externally imposed, or internally established.
With the introduction of incorporation legislation for nonprofit organisations, specific ‘tools’ were developed for recording the organisation’s legal and factual history. Examples
of such tools (in alphabetical order include:
- annual budgets
- annual meeting minutes and papers
- annual or triennial funding and service agreements
- annual reports
- audited annual financial statements
- Committee/Board minutes and meeting papers
- contracts, newsletters and programs
- official minute book
- pamphlets, brochures, flyers, policy and procedure manuals
- quality improvement manuals
- register of members
- sequential constitutions and amendments
- special general meeting minutes and papers
- staff records
- strategic, business, corporate, annual plans
- tenders and submissions
- volunteer effort
- and more
This might be the starting point. When these are gathered, dusted off, and handed out to the people who have volunteered to undertake this Archaeological Dig Project, the task could be to sort things into bundles appropriate for:
- oral and anecdotal history
- written history
- graphic history
- legal and factual history
An Archaeological Dig wider than your organisation?
It is highly likely that your organisation has played a key role in the history and development of your neighbourhood, town, city or suburb. If this is so, perhaps your Committee or Board could suggest a wider Archaeological Dig that will include but not be confined to your organisation.
Keep the image and example of a Bronze Age Settlement uppermost in your mind. At some time in the future, the 20th and 21st centuries may well be regarded as equivalent to our Bronze Age! Do your best to leave a range of information that will inform the future – or far-future – of the passions, commitment and energy that is driving your organisation, neighbourhood, town, city or suburb today.