Every nonprofit has a rich history, but it’s likely contained in various places — boxes in the basement, awards in a display case, memories of a long-time staff member or volunteer. What happens when the basement floods or your volunteer passes away? You’ll also lose the stories they hold. 

Dr. Kristen Gwinn-Becker is on a mission to help nonprofits preserve their history through digital archiving. As the founder and CEO of HistoryIT, she works with organizations to photograph and catalog the objects, documents, and images that accumulate over time and turn them into a collection that your team can search through and use. 

This is more than just scanning and adding old photos to an online database. Gwinn-Becker outlines the two core components of a robust digital archive and explains how fundraisers can use the archive to discover, reach, and engage more donors. 

What Types of Organizations Should Create a Digital Archive?

When you hear the term “digital archive,” you likely think of museums, historical societies, or libraries. And while it’s imperative that these institutions digitize their files, it’s equally important for other organizations like nonprofits, businesses, and churches. All their stories matter, and they matter on a larger scale. 

For instance, a sorority’s history tells more than its own legacy—it’s the history of women in higher education over 150 years.  

When you make these stories available and accessible, you’ll start to see your organization through a wider lens. Similarly, your donors and supporters will gain a better understanding of the impact you have beyond your immediate community or constituency.  

Why a Proper Digital Archive Is Essential

People want direct access to history. It shouldn’t take academic research skills for someone to find information about what your organization was doing five, 15, or even 50 years ago.  

Gwinn-Becker founded HistoryIT with this simple idea in mind: By collecting and cataloging its historical resources, an organization can better tell its story, educate the public, engage members, raise funds, and increase its overall value.  

The struggle is that this work is daunting. Many organizations will simply scan in documents and photos, upload them to a server, and call it a day. But their idea of cataloging may be akin to an analog library system — “last name, first name” — which is completely unnatural to how a regular person who just needs to find a photo might search for it. And that photo is often in a small file format, like a JPEG, PNG, or PDF, that computers may not even be able to read soon.   

A true digital archive is intuitive and user-friendly. It contains two key components: large, high-quality files and a sensible tagging system.  

1. Photograph all elements with an overhead camera and save them as large TIFF files. You can then create derivative formats in smaller sizes that are easier to share, but you’ll always have a large, high-quality master file. 

2. Use normal words and natural phrases when tagging and cataloging your files. This will make it easier for your team to find and use pieces of the collection. 

How To Use Your Digital Content

Every piece of an archive is an untapped opportunity to engage your audience. Say you have a photograph of five people, but you’ve only identified three of them. Share the image with your social media followers and ask for their help. Not only will you learn more about the photo, but you’ll also uncover connections to your nonprofit you never knew existed. 

We live in an age in which content is king, and your digital archive is a treasure trove of millions of pages of unique content. There are countless ways you can use your archive to engage your followers. For instance, you might find a fascinating scholarship program in your history that made college more accessible for hundreds of people. This entirely new audience may want to thank you with a donation. 

The fundraising opportunities are immense — and not just for people who care about history. Nearly everyone wants to protect their legacy and the legacy of an organization they belong to.    

Use Your History to Move Into the Future

History is everywhere, and we have a responsibility to preserve it. Creating a robust digital archive will save your organization’s stories so your work is never lost. 

HistoryIT offers both software and services to help you archive your files. Once you have these resources in place, our Allegiance Group + Pursuant team can work with you to build a strategy for using them to discover new audiences, make deeper connections with donors, and drive revenue.  

Want to learn more? Watch a free webinar with Gwinn-Becker and Beth Burkes, Chief Development Officer of Tri Delta sorority, Connecting with Faces from the Past: Leveraging Digital Archives for Nonprofit Storytelling and Engagement. You’ll learn how to breathe life into your organization’s history, amplify your impact, and reach wider audiences. 

This blog post is based on the latest episode of Fundraising Today and the Go Beyond Fundraising podcast. Listen to the full conversation.

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