On Archiving

By Yossi Prager

As AVI CHAI enters its last month, I am writing another post in our series related to foundation strategy, implementation, culture and sunset. This post focuses on archiving, a topic that has proved more interesting and complicated than we originally expected. As I write, two archives – the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) in New York and the National Library in Israel – are processing our hard copy and digital files for their collections. I share the story of our decision-making process, our remaining open questions and tips for others, whether foundations or operating nonprofits, who are considering whether and how to leave behind a record of their work. If you only want the practical tips, just skip to the end.

My partners in this work at AVI CHAI included Eli Silver, our executive director in Israel, Chairman Mem Bernstein, and former Chairman Arthur Fried. Once we decided to have an archive and then settled on hosts, the staff of AJHS and the Israel National Library became part of the ongoing deliberations.

Even before considering an archive, AVI CHAI decided more than a decade ago to commission two accessible accounts of AVI CHAI’s work in its three geographic areas – North America, Israel and the former Soviet Union. The first was a series of reports by Joel Fleishman chronicling our sunset. Seven reports have already been published, and we anticipate that the final report will be ready in early 2020. Second is a book on the history of AVI CHAI by Tony Proscio, setting out the foundation’s origins, evolution, programs, achievements, struggles and internal deliberations. Both of these publications have the benefit of being curated and edited for accessibility. Of course, that process of making the story accessible contains an inherent disadvantage: there is limited room for details, and the perspective offered is that of the authors.

An archive is something more: in our case, the primary documents of the foundation’s work over 35 years. Beyond published material, these include documentation of strategy sessions, proposals to AVI CHAI, the materials prepared by the staff for Trustee consideration, the transcripts of the board meetings and the follow-up staff memos, reports from grantees and outside evaluators, and correspondence. An archive could potentially include email correspondence as well, but ours will not.

An AVI CHAI archive could be useful to researchers seeking to lift the veil masking foundation operations or seeking a better understanding of the development of Jewry and Judaism during the period in which AVI CHAI operated. We were fortunate to interact with, and in many cases fund, most of the key players in the fields in which we worked in all three of our geographic areas. The files contain information about these people, their ambitions, their innovations and their struggles. The files also contain curricula, audio-visual materials and other products developed by our grantees that could illuminate the Jewish era in which we live.

For this reason, leaving behind an archive at first seemed like a “no brainer,” especially based on our understanding of donor intent. AVI CHAI’s funder, Zalman C. Bernstein z”l, invested from the beginning in the creation of voluminous recordings and transcripts of board meetings that could only make sense if the ultimate purpose included making the information available to researchers and philanthropists down the road.

As we got deeper into the process, however, we came to understand and address a range of concerns. Most significantly, we asked: could exposing internal deliberations and external correspondence violate the very first rule of philanthropy, which is “At the very least do no harm”? Could there be material that would embarrass or damage the reputation of foundation Trustees or staff, grantee organizations and their people, or other organizations and individuals mentioned in the archive? From a Jewish values perspective, how should we balance the public benefits of making the archive available against what some people might feel is a violation of privacy?

There were other concerns as well. Gifting an archive in a responsible way is an expensive proposition because the archive needs to hire staff to weed out material that should not be included (HR documents and personal information about consultants or program participants) or that will be restricted for varying periods of time (see below). Ideally, archivists will also digitize fragile documents and will be in a position to prepare a detailed index (called a “finding aid”) as a tool to researchers. In the modern era, all this needs to be done for both paper and digital material.

Even with professional archivists doing the work, there was also the consideration of the staff time needed to develop with the archivists the guidelines about what will be made public and when. We decided early on that based on our belief that donor intent was to establish an archive, the time and money was justified.

The privacy concerns were more challenging. Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that Trustees and staff should have understood that the recordings and transcripts of meetings would ultimately become public as part of an archive. We nonetheless consulted with the Board and staff and heard no deep concerns about their personal privacy. However, because of privacy concerns, we did not even consider including in the archive any emails or documents that had been labeled “Eyes Only,” AVI CHAI-speak for confidential.

That left the issue of the privacy and potential harm to grantees and the people associated with them or others corresponding with the foundation. To evaluate this concern, I spent a few hours with the North American files trying to understand the degree to which they contain private or potentially damaging information. Overwhelmingly, I found factual material, and to the extent there were evaluations and deliberations, the information was professional and not ad hominum. As a result, while readers might disagree with conclusions reached, the likelihood of meaningful damage seems small. In some cases, AVI CHAI’s judgment clearly WAS wrong: Zalman once strongly expressed a view that a particular person did not have the credibility or skills to run the program being developed. As things evolved, the person did direct the project, and after 25 years it was self-evident that he had the credibility and skills. At times, I found in the material boorish comments that ultimately reveal more about the speaker than the subject of the speech.

In my time reading files, I did find the occasional exception, such as a grantee report detailing reasons for terminating a senior staff member. Ideally, there would be some way of removing this kind of material, but the cost of reading through hundreds of linear feet of documents is prohibitive.

Seeking some guidance, I consulted with Rabbi Dr. Jacob J Schacter, a rabbi, ethicist and historian who (ironically) had personally been turned down for a grant by AVI CHAI. He urged that we apply a balancing approach. If the problematic material is rare, and the overwhelming majority of the archive would prove useful to the public, we should proceed. He suggested that I go back to the files and spend a couple of hours with two projects I thought most likely to contain information or discussions that could embarrass individuals. In doing so, I was relieved to learn that the advent of email appears to keep most of the private and potentially embarrassing conversations out of the formal paper and digital files. Since we are not contributing emails to the archives, those conversations will remain private.

We continue to weigh one open question: when the various kinds of materials – proposals, memos, evaluation reports, transcripts, etc. – should become public. We have the option of restricting different kinds of material for different time periods. Restricting material for decades, until all of the people mentioned are out of the workplace or deceased, would diminish the privacy concerns, but it would also make it far less likely that anyone made use of the archives when the material becomes available. We are currently seeking a middle ground.

Having provided all of this background to our decision-making process, I move to the more practical elements of building and leaving behind an archive, with the following tips:

  1. As you build your files. Some of us, and that decidedly does not include me, are very organized with the paper they send for filing. Each folder sent to the files is properly labeled and contains only relevant and appropriate materials. Furthermore, these “gold star” employees put into our network drive a digital copy of each report received from grantees by email. I have come to appreciate that the value of the archive will be far greater if more of us developed these habits, and if the organization uses consistent names for programs across staff and over time.
  2. Assessing what you have. The smartest thing I did in the process was to hire Mimi Bowling, herself an archivist, to look through our files in the office and at the warehouse and prepare a report ranking the materials from 1-5, with 1 meaning “discard” and 5 meaning “absolutely keep.” Mimi was able to tell us approximately how many linear feet we would likely be archiving, even as the final decisions remained with the foundation. Mimi also advised us as we were evaluating possible hosts for the archive.
  3. Selecting a host and, ultimately, owner of the archive. In Israel, the National Library seemed the natural choice, if they were interested. They were. In North America, after exploring options, we decided that we wanted an organization with a fine reputation for expertise and professionalism in archiving that would also have familiarity with the organizations and terminology within the Jewish community. On these criteria, AJHS was an easy choice; they also have archives for HIAS and UJA-New York Federation, among others. We have found them to be stellar partners.
  4. Deciding how involved to be. Sometimes, archives are donated as an organization is closing, and the archivists do their work without the benefit (or interference!) of the staff of the organization. In our case, we began the process more than a year in advance of sunset so that we could participate in decision-making as the archive is processed. We negotiated the agreement so that ownership of the material would not pass to AJHS until we were satisfied with the processing.
  5. Deciding on Restriction Guidelines. As I mentioned above, the donors of the archive need to decide which material will become public immediately, and when the other material may become public. (There are some exceptional items that will never be made public such as social security numbers and similar information. These are weeded as part of processing the archive.) The process of deciding on the guidelines has been the most challenging and interesting part for me. In our case, we have made some decisions, and others remain open until the processing is completed.


The audience for an archive is more limited than for books and reports. But Jews are a people steeped in memory. We consider the past part of our lived experience, and when planning for the future we think not only of the next ten years but the next 4,000 years. At AVI CHAI, we hope that the lessons of Jewish history, including from our archive, will inform the future. We are proud to count an archive as part of our legacy.

Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America for The AVI CHAI Foundation.