The Need for Institutional Memory

By Susan J. Ellis

One of the most frustrating aspects of change in organizations is that new ways of doing things seem to spring up without any consciousness of what happened in the past. This is particularly relevant to volunteerism, since agencies have high turnover in volunteer program management positions and all-volunteer associations rotate officers with every election. Too often the newcomers initiate change simply because of their own preferences or the wish to establish a new administration. They fail to ask an important question first: Why and how did we end up where we are now?

No one wants to be immobilized by resistance to change based on we tried that ten years ago and it didn't work. On the other hand, we are all too busy to reinvent the square wheel or duplicate the hard efforts of predecessors. The key is to do some research before we set off in a new direction. I suggest that we consider assigning someone the role of Continuity Officer. This idea would work both for a board of directors and in an agency-based volunteer program.

Boards of Directors

Everyone understands the roles of president, treasurer, secretary and the other age-old officer positions. But Robert's Rules of Order and other traditional references for how to run an organization have missed the boat by not recommending a Continuity Officer to assure that the organization understands its history and why earlier decisions were made. True, the Secretary generally has possession of the meeting minutes book, but how often does anyone ask for a search of historical information? Also, past minutes are often incomplete or hard to search because information is buried within long paragraphs.

A Continuity Officer would have the following position description:

  • Upon taking office, will read the entire minutes history, including any written policies and procedures. [The very first Continuity Officer might agree to create an index for the minutes and policies, which would help successors enormously. In fact, given today's technology, it might be possible to scan all the minutes into a computer so that word searches for certain topics can quickly be done.]

  • When discussion occurs about a subject on which board/group action has been taken previously, will make sure the group knows what was done earlier. The point is not to stop discussion! But if the group wants to make a new decision, they ought to do so in the full awareness that: a) they are indeed making a change; and b) they have considered the reasoning of the previous group and feel the situation has changed sufficiently to warrant the new course of action.

  • Be the "keeper" of the Policies and Procedures list (those items that do not require any bylaw changes but affect the daily working of an organization), again bringing inconsistencies or changes to the attention of the current leadership. Make note of new policies discussed and agreed to, in preparation for the next Continuity Officer.

  • Monitor the passing of the baton between outgoing and incoming board members. Is there an effective Board Member Orientation process to teach how the organization operates? Are all necessary records transferred from each board member to his/her successor? Has the newcomer been informed about projects underway that will require picking up the reins of leadership?

Volunteer Programs

Volunteer program managers also ought to think about succession planning. If you were to win the lottery and leave your job, would your replacement know how the program works and why you set it up this way? This is an important component of a policies and procedures manual, beyond the rules themselves: record the reasoning behind certain decisions made (and date them, too). Organize your files (in cabinets and on your computer) in a logical way so that historical materials can be located easily.

If you take a job as VPM in an existing program, value continuity at least initially as a sign of respect to both your predecessor and all the volunteers who have come before. Start by talking to longtime participants and comparatively new ones, too. What do they like and dislike? Who made decisions about these things in the past? What led to these decisions? Does anyone know if there is documentation of past actions? You will learn more about this program aspect and begin to understand the reasoning behind the present situation. Three options will present themselves:

  • You'll determine that, despite your initial reaction, there is indeed some validity to continuing without a change here.

  • You'll be confirmed in your sense that a change is needed, but you'll be able to find a way to implement it with the participation of those who are most involved. Ideally, they should feel appreciated for their previous work and see the new methods as building on that, not superceding it.

  • You'll discover that no one alive has any idea why something is being done and that you can initiate change without a problem (but based now on good reasoning!).

Usually the VPM will act as the proposed Continuity Officer, but this can also become a valued volunteer position to advise the VPM and to represent views of the various program constituencies whenever change is contemplated. Those who fight the hardest against new things, whether they be volunteers or employees, may wrongly feel that the change is a negative response to their past work. If they can be confident that someone is monitoring past decisions as well as future needs, their resistance will be less. Respect for institutional memory can actually become a form of recognition.

Events and Conferences

The concept of a Continuity Officer has application to major annual events, too. For example, an annual fundraiser or conference tends to be most influenced (rightfully so) by this year's steering committee. But some things ought not to change each year. It can drive patrons, vendors, and volunteers crazy if new procedures, forms, and other details change annually. Besides, if something is announced one year as a new annual activity, it ought to reappear the following year! Too often no one on this year's committee remembers last year's promise until it is too late. Decide what ought to be consistent from year to year and assign the Continuity Officer to watch over these.

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