by Elizabeth Leiman Kraiem

I have noticed recently that many organizations, especially in the Jewish world, are putting timelines on their websites. Timelines are decidedly old media, yet a combination of technology and chronology has made them new again. What else might explain their current popularity? What organizational and social needs do timelines address? Here are some observations about the role of timelines in organizations and short reflections on why this is a time for timelines.

  1. Timelines extend the reach of a mission statement. A good timeline tells a coherent story about an organization’s origins and development, and underscores the direction it chooses for the future. As when writing a mission statement, this requires choices about what to include and what to leave out, informed by an organization’s aims and self-understanding. Like a mission statement, they should be updated and even revised periodically.
  2. They are needed counterweights to blogs and social media. In organizations, as in life, we need our arms around both the small and the big picture. Timelines are the panoramic shot to the blog’s close-up, a way to organize the details de jour of social media with clarity and authority. That said, inexpensive software now offers engaging ways to adorn timelines by adding video and sound, making it easy to nest stories within stories. We may soon see websites incorporating the best of both worlds.
  3. They are institutional memory. Society shows little regard for elders or their traditional role as guardians of memory. Who will assume this role as boomers, known to pride themselves on reinvention and forward thought, are an organization’s elders? (Full disclosure: I am a boomer myself.) Timelines are a place to hold the formative events in an organization’s history and how they influenced its development.
  4. They look easy, but they are not. Tidiness takes work. The foundation I direct recently completed a timeline. Its history is long, distinguished and relatively unknown. Creating a first draft was like finding a chest of treasures hiding in plain sight (we won medals at the Columbian Exposition! Mark Twain gave a famous speech to our Board!), but editing was like burying them again (Goodbye, Columbus). The remaining facts seemed bare without context and supporting detail, and I wondered if we shouldn’t be updating the foundation’s excellent history book instead. Then, as we tinkered and wordsmithed, the facts took shape, formed a trajectory. Finished at last, we had something clear and purposeful: a spine strong enough to bear the weight of the past and flexible enough to carry us into the future.

Elizabeth Leiman Kraiem is Executive Director of the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women: a New York City-based, nonsectarian organization helping women with financial need to meet their education and career goals through scholarships and other supportive services. Learn more at www.jfew.org