Charitable organisations play an essential role in society and deliver vital services to many marginalised and vulnerable communities across the UK. The value of the work of voluntary organisations within the community has never been clearer than during the Covid-19 health crisis, which has resulted in unprecedented calls on the voluntary sector’s services.
Essential for understanding
The archives and records of these organisations are essential in understanding the vital role of the sector in society in the past, present and future, as well as important sources of institutional identity, memory, and accountability. With so many services delivered by charitable organisations on behalf of the state, there is a strong public interest in their contractual compliance, accountability, ethics, and standards of public behaviour. Effective record keeping within charities themselves is therefore of profound importance and high-profile inquiries into the history of charitable organisations have highlighted the evidential value of records. For the charity sector, opening archives is key to building trust and improving accountability to beneficiaries, donors, and local communities.
Charities also often support disenfranchised and marginalised groups, and their records can provide individuals and communities with access to important personal memories and collective heritage. This includes the UK’s BAME communities; LGBT+ individuals and groups; people with disabilities or ill health; as well as communities marginalised in many ways through poverty and other inequalities.
Despite this, charity archives lack the long-term legal protection afforded to government records and only a small proportion of charities run organisational archive services. Charitable collections of international significance exist within many collecting archives. However, facilitating the deposit of charity records can be complex, and resources are not always available to catalogue collections or make them available. As a result, charity archives are often invisible, undervalued, underused, and are consequently at risk.
This vulnerability has peaked due to the Covid-19 pandemic which has brought about immediate and long-term losses of income in the voluntary sector that will likely result in restructures, mergers, and insolvency. Charity records from this period will be essential sources of evidence on the impact of the pandemic on local communities; the role of local, regional, and voluntary organisations in the pandemic response; and society’s recovery. At a time in which charities are facing greater challenges, experiencing change, and are the focus of increased public scrutiny, it is essential that charities and the public are aware of the value of effective recordkeeping.
Working collaboratively alongside the charity archive sector and other stakeholders, The National Archives is implementing an inter-disciplinary Charity Archives Support and Development Plan that will seek to mitigate some of the challenges facing charity archives.
This will complement existing networks and initiatives in order to help raise the profile of charity archives; ensuring that future collections are representative of contemporary charitable activity, and that these collections are used by organisations and researchers alike.
Promoting the value of archives and records
The plan will seek to promote the value of archives and records to charitable organisations and the archives sector in order to encourage their effective management, preservation, and use. It will raise the profile of charitable collections as cultural and research assets for the public, academic community, and archive sector; highlighting their importance as sources of personal and collective memory. The plan will also support and expand networks and partnerships between practitioners working with charity collections across sectors and improve their capacity through better advocacy, support, and training. Crucially, the plan will also develop a mechanism for monitoring and mitigating charity archives at risk.
In order to achieve this, The National Archives is seeking to create a steering group that will work with us to develop the programme. It is important that the group represents the broad range of issues facing charity archives and, as such, we are looking for members with different types of experience and levels of expertise who work with, or have an interest in, charity archives. We also value lived experience and understand that charities engage with some of the most marginalised members of society. We are therefore actively seeking participation from those who have worked within charities or have been users of charity archives.
The project will begin in the spring and run for up to five years. The steering group will meet remotely up to four times a year. Membership will be on a yearly basis with no obligation to participate for the full length of the project.
If you are interested in joining the group, please email Kathryn Preston before the end of the month. Further information on the project and steering group is available on The National Archives’ website.