Building a corporate memory

An organisation's corporate memory is an essential tool for allowing reliable predictions, estimations and forecasting. Yet it all too often resides only in the minds of board members, staff and volunteers; when they leave, so too does the knowledge.

A "corporate memory" (a term most often used in the business world but of high relevance also to the not-for-profit sector) refers to an organisation's historic records and experience.

The benefit of establishing a corporate memory or central records repository is that if someone leaves your organisation, or a different person moves into a particular position the next year, they have the benefits of your experiences – good and bad – and your contacts.

Case study: fundraising events

Many community groups run their annual special fundraising event and find it proves to be a great success.

The person responsible for organising the event spends hours upon hours nailing down every detail from booking venues, to compiling an invitation list and arranging quotes for everything from food to entertainment to a sound system.

When it all comes together they deserve hearty congratulations. It's not an easy job – and for that very reason the work shouldn't finish the minute the last stragglers head into the night.

In organising a successful function your organisation has built up a terrific store of knowledge that can be used as the basis for running your next event or the same event next year.

But one of the most common problems for community groups – and many businesses – is that so much effort goes into planning events and so little into recording all the finicky details to establish the "corporate memory" of the event.

To do this successfully, you need to plan and establish a workable record-keeping system at the same time as you are beginning to plan your event. Your goal is to make the next event you plan a much easier and more successful fundraiser. All the experience and contacts you have made throughout the planning and implementation of this event can help you towards that goal, if you manage to record them successfully. You or future event organisers will be able to use your records to predict attendance, estimate budget figures, hire contractors and schedule events.

Set up files for the following components of the event. (Not all will be necessary for all events.)

  • Board and sub-committee contact lists, copies of meeting agendas, minutes and correspondence
  • Other volunteer lists and communications
  • Sponsor lists, correspondence and contracts (if appropriate)
  • Budget papers, including receipts and accounts
  • Venue details and agreements
  • Copies of all printed materials, programs, invitations, programs, letterhead, posters and prices
  • Speeches
  • Supplier listings (business cards, quotations and contracts for all)
  • Media releases and copies of subsequent media exposure
  • Advertising copy and prices
  • Biographies and contact details of presenters, speakers and entertainers and costs associated with each one
  • Timeline of activities (annotated to indicate what worked and what didn't)
  • Catering details
  • Audiovisual/staging requirements
  • Risk management analysis
  • Permits and licenses
  • Acknowledgements of volunteers, board and sub-committee members and sponsors
  • Reports to your board or management committee

Keep photographic (digital if at all possible) records of the planning as well as of the event itself. These are good for your own information, archival material and to use as publicity shots for future events and general public relations material for your organisation. It is very important to budget for a professional photographer on the day if you wish to use the results in future more professional publications.

About a week after the event, hold a debriefing session with key contractors and staff to go through details of aspects of the event. Be meticulous about writing down successes and especially areas and suggestions for improvement. This document will inform your final report to your board or management committee, which includes answers to questions such as:

  • What were the original goals?
  • Were the goals achieved?
  • What new strategies were used? Did they work?
  • What were the major successes?
  • What were the failures?
  • What suggestions do we have for a similar event in the future?

Not just for events

You need to make sure your organisation's corporate memory is preserved in all other aspects of your operations as well.

Think about what would happen if certain key people suddenly stopped turning up. Could someone else step into the breach to handle the budget, the bills, the Annual General Meeting, and all the other things that need to be done to ensure your organisation continues to function properly?

Make sure everyone understands the importance of writing things down, keeping files and making their knowledge accessible.

When key people do leave the organisation, establish a practice of scheduling adequate time for "hand-over" sessions with the departing staff member and remaining or new staff. This is a time to go through the files.

Ideally, keep the new contact details of the departing staff member attached to the files, with the understanding that s/he will not be approached for information unless absolutely necessary. With a practice of diligent recording-keeping established in your organisation, this life-line will rarely if ever have to be used.

The board

As a board member your job is not just to ensure that a strong corporate memory exists in other parts of the organisation, but that your board itself and you individually do your bit too. For a board, having the benefit of a strong corporate memory can make all the difference between making a good, informed decision and a repeating all the mistakes of the past.

Ensure excellent records of board meetings are kept. Files should include agendas, detailed minutes, supporting documents and any other information board members have used in their deliberations.

Board records should also be easily accessible and logically filed. There is little point keeping great historical information if no one can find it when they need it.

Effective organisations are those that recognise that knowledge is "owned" by the entire group and not just by an individual. It is terribly unproductive to keep on making the same mistakes each year because coherent records were not kept.

Those organisations that keep a strong corporate memory are able to build on their successes year by year through constantly learning and refining processes and contacts.

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