Every day you walk through the halls of your office, past the same bookcase. It’s the one you noticed the first day at work, full of professional resources you intended to read — but then it magically melted into the walls. How many dusty drawers and file cabinets, stuffed with yellowed papers and other mystery materials, do you also ignore? Perhaps there’s also a large storage closet you never knew about, never received the keys to, or are simply afraid entering in fear of things falling on top of you?
At Philanthropy Northwest, we have four magical bookcases, multiple mystery drawers and one scary storage closet filled with materials from our 40-year history. Many of our partners have also have amassed decades of artifacts, including Boeing (celebrating its centennial this year) and our founding members Ben B. Cheney Foundation, Medina Foundation, Seattle Foundation and Weyerhaeuser. Once an organization is more than a generation old, it can become paralyzing to decide what to keep (and how much of it), what to donate and what to toss. If something has been kept for all these years, doesn’t that mean it might be valuable? Do we need backups of materials that have been digitized? And if we don’t want something anymore, is there a place to donate it so that it can still have some life, or does it just get tossed into the recycle bin?
With the start of the new year, and as we thought more about how to reflect on our 40th anniversary this fall, we decided it was time to go through everything and make an informed decision about which materials should be saved — to reference in our upcoming programs and future publications — and which to let go.
My colleague Shin Yu Pai and I spent a week reviewing the bookcases and tried to glean any treasures we could find. We unshelved materials and sorted them in an empty office by organizing books into general interest areas sorted further by age. We sifted through unbound paper reports, VHS tapes and DVDs.
When taking on a big organizational project like this, Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, suggests physically holding each item and keeping only things that spark joy. With a nod to the KonMarie method, her chapter on junk drawers and dealing with books and paper, and Shin Yu’s experience as a former archives curator, we developed a simple method:
Let It Go
- Most items older than a decade
- Self-published books and review copies
- Journal articles printed from the Internet
- Outdated statistical data
- Extra copies of publications
- Resources that were out of Philanthropy Northwest’s scope or no longer useful to the organization (such as outdated directories)
We distributed some resources to specific colleagues and teams, based on their Philanthropy Northwest roles and interests. We shared the books on journalism and marketing with our communications team; publications about diversity, equity and inclusion went to staff working with our Momentum Fellows. Those teams could then determine whether these materials should be let go or kept at their work stations.
Other resources still had much life and possible use — just not to us. We set aside dozens of books for the Nonprofit Assistance Center, a capacity-building organization for nonprofits led by people of color.
"We have a library at our office, so it's great to be able to pull something useful as a resource when we're working with an organization," said Sarah Tran, executive director, as she loaded most of the books onto a cart to take back to the center.
Historical documents about Philanthropy Northwest, such as the organization’s articles of incorporation and board books from pre-digital years, are valuable for us, our longtime members and historians interested in philanthropy and the Northwest. We have laid them out on a table in our newsroom, for our communications team to review and share as part of our #PNW40 anniversary celebration and #ThrowbackThursday social media posts on Facebook and Twitter.
"If our members are also decluttering, let us know if you find any historic materials from our network," said Nicole Neroulias Gupte, our communications manager. "Keep an eye out for old photos, news clippings and conference programs, especially if they're labeled Pacific Northwest Grantmakers Forum, which was our name from 1976 to 1991."
Depending on the size and unique attributes of each artifact, we intend to archive between three and 15 copies of these artifacts.
You can imagine after more than a decade of these materials collecting dust on shelves and in drawers that there was a lot to sift through — from annual reports, books, and program agendas to historical board reports and other materials that were published before I was born!
After whittling down the resources from four bookcases to one, we then passed all the historical documents we found to our Leadership Team which is made up of seven senior managers that oversee different aspects of the enterprise. Halfway through this project, the team tackled the storage closet, exercising their executive decision-making powers to decide how much to purge from the towers of old conference programs, fliers, posters, videotapes, CDs and print newsletters.
As the staff member with the longest history with Philanthropy Northwest —13 years! — Cheryl Frizzell, our finance director, served as the team's guide for finding and understanding the materials. And from the sounds of laughter we heard emanating throughout our offices that afternoon, this dreaded chore even became a fun team-building exercise.
Reviewing resources once a year can be a useful method of managing materials and redistributing helpful information to colleagues. Research briefings and data trends may never spark joy. However, the best prevention for clutter is directing materials to their appropriate place when they first come through the office — before they become forgotten or outdated.
Anne Yoon is an associate with The Giving Practice, Philanthropy Northwest's consulting team. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.