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Podcast | How Digital Archiving Can Fuel Your Fundraising with HistoryIT's Kristen Gwinn-Becker

Where is the history of your nonprofit? Stuffed in boxes in the basement or attic? Displayed in glass cases? Held in the memories of your staff members? The stories of your organization are all around you. But basements flood, and workers retire. It’s crucial to preserve as much institutional knowledge as you can now. 

In this episode of Fundraising Today and the Go Beyond Fundraising podcast, we talk with Dr. Kristen Gwinn-Becker, founder and CEO of HistoryIT, about her work to help nonprofits record their rich histories in digital archives. This is more than scanning photos and documents — this is a searchable, easy-to-use collection of the moments that have made your organization what it is today. 

Gwinn-Becker will outline the two most important components of a well-developed archive. She’ll also share how the archive can serve as a powerful tool that fundraisers can then use to boost donor engagement and bring in more gifts.

Want to hear more? Listen to the full episode:

Connect with Dr. Kristen Gwinn-Becker

Read the blog From Dusty Boxes to Digital Gold: Transforming Nonprofit Histories into Fundraising Assets with Digital Archives

Get more Go Beyond Fundraising Podcasts



Host: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Fundraising Today and the Go Beyond Fundraising podcast. Today, I am sitting down with Kristen Gwinn-Becker from HistoryIT. Kristen, I feel really excited to talk to you today because, about an hour before we sat down to record, I discovered that you have a TED Talk, and that’s really cool and exciting. 


You’re really passionate about history and the future of what archives look like, and we’re having this conversation because there are a lot of nonprofit organizations out there who have extremely rich histories and donors who are really passionate about that history. But a lot of history is locked up in physical media that can be difficult to get to. So, I would love to have a conversation with you today about the work that you’re doing at HistoryIT, as well as your background and how you got to be so passionate about this topic of digital archiving. 


Kristen Gwinn-Becker: Yes, I’m super excited to be here, Leah, and always happy to talk about digital archives, digital history, how we can make it more accessible, how we can better engage our communities and our membership with the stories we have to tell from the past. 


A little bit about me: I founded HistoryIT just over 13 years ago, which seems impossible now. I was a software web developer for a while, and then I made the not-very-traditional move of leaving technology and going and doing a Ph.D. in history. And so, when I emerged from the world of the humanities, it’s very academic, and I’m a specialist, I have a Ph.D., I get to go to archives and go through things and then interpret them for you and tell you what that means. I didn’t see that model as continuing to work in the digital world that we live in or work as being the only model because people want direct access to history, to information. They want to be able to search and discover materials and stories on their own. 


So, I founded HistoryIT with this desire to help organizations utilize this trove of resources in order to better tell their story and better educate the public about what they do, engage membership, raise funds, just increase their value by utilizing these things that are, like, molding in basements and attics and seen as just for the world of professional research. 


Yeah, so we’re a software and services firm. We do digital collections and digital museum soup to nuts. We work with organizations on their strategy to build a digital archive and museum, what it’s going to take. We do all the imaging, the cataloging, metadata. We have our own software platform, so really the soup to nuts of building a digital archive museum. 


Host: I love hearing people talk about this kind of work because — a little personal story about me: My grandmother was very interested in history and family history and genealogy. And after she passed away, when my family was going through all her belongings to figure out what to do with everything, there were boxes and boxes of research she had been doing at different county seats and many copies of things because she had started doing family research for lots of different branches of the family. She was uncovering all these different relatives. And it was just such a daunting effort at the time to go through all of that and make sure that we cared for those items well and made sure that they got to the right places, that they weren’t just lost after that. 


And I tell that because I imagine for a lot of organizations with a lot of history — and especially membership-based organizations where there may be … I’m thinking, for example, of Greek organizations where maybe there have been several generations of a family that have been involved in that organization — preserving all of that is so important. 


Kristen Gwinn-Becker: It is so important, and it is … daunting is the word you used, and that is the word we hear from our clients and partners all day, every day. Or when people reach out to us and say, “We had no idea that you exist” because it’s so daunting. And I get it, I understand why it is, and we are here to ease that burden. But what I’m terrified of is that organizations, people will find it so daunting that they just don’t do it. Or they’ll do some kind of quick and dirty version of what they think is being digital, and then that history is going to be lost. 


We have a lot of responsibility right now to preserve materials digitally for the future, and so yes, it’s daunting, it’s big, it’s scary. Let’s go through this together and find a way to do it because we have to. We say our mission is to save history, and that’s real in terms of making materials digital in a way that’s truly future-proofed — it’s going to last for generations — and making it accessible. And if we don’t do that, we will lose that history. 


Host: I’d love to come back to that to dig more into that and uncover how you future-proof that. So, you were in software, and then you went and got your Ph.D. in history. That’s such an interesting transition. So, what inspired that? 


Kristen Gwinn-Becker: I’d say I’m generally a pretty curious person. I studied history as an undergraduate as well, and I just kept being drawn back to it. I didn’t want to teach, and that’s also pretty unusual for pursuing graduate work in the humanities. But I got a fellowship to go to GW to do a Ph.D. Instead of teaching, it was a research fellowship to work on the Eleanor Roosevelt papers, and I was just intrigued by that. It was an early edition digital project. I was very interested in the era and the person and thinking about working with documents as I was trying to find what I wanted to do with my life. 


It’s an incredible privilege to spend several years of your life kind of drinking coffee and reading books and educating oneself and talking with similar people who are on that same quest. And I was just, like most people, I think, early in their careers or lack of careers just floating along. So, obviously it wasn’t intentional — like, “I’m going to go learn web development because it’s the late 90s and I moved to San Francisco and that’s just what we were doing.” And then, “Maybe I don’t want to do this; maybe I want to do something in history.” And then, of course, I ended up bringing those two passions together, so I’m very lucky in that. 


Host: When was the aha moment for you, when you realized there was this huge gap or this big challenge around digital archiving and the common challenges that lots of organizations that hold these kinds of documents run into? 


Kristen Gwinn-Becker: The aha moment was very early on. I started the company; I was mainly interested in kind of a consulting service — I’m going to help organizations utilize their archival content to see it. We live in a time when content is king, and they’re sitting on millions of pages of unique content, and I wanted to help them use that. 


And then it became very obvious very quickly that it was just completely inaccessible — mostly because it was literally on paper in boxes, and it would take days and days to find anything. You needed to be a professional researcher. You needed the skills of going through that kind of stuff to do anything, find anything that would be useful. 


And then the other piece of it was some stuff was digital, but it wasn’t high-quality, and it was in a software system that was pretty much an analog library system just put online. It was still required that you think like a researcher. 


So early on, it was like, okay, this is what we have to do. We have to build our own software platform that’s usable by regular people, not just history geeks or library geeks like me. And we need to go on this kind of quest, this mission to help people understand what it takes to build a true digital archive, what the digitization process needs to involve. That was definitely an early-on “Oh wow.” It’s so inaccessible on every level, and we just have to start. 


Host: I think that education piece is really key because not knowing where to start is what keeps people feeling paralyzed. How is that education piece built into the HistoryIT platform to help people get started? 


Kristen Gwinn-Becker: We provide a lot of resources. I’m talking constantly, other members of our team are talking constantly about what digital preservation really means. Why digitization, why scanning is not digital preservation. Any forum we’re in to be able to talk about that and then to be able to showcase what we do and how folks can do it themselves. And then making our software platform as easy to use as possible. But really, we see ourselves as an ongoing partner with every organization we work with. We get them started, we can help bring capacity, but really, it’s theirs that we can just help bolster. 


Host: What are some of the challenges or concerns that people have around the permanence of digital archives or the lack of permanence of digital archives, and what’s going on being the scenes that makes it really robust? 


Kristen Gwinn-Becker: That’s an excellent question and thank you for asking it. There are two pieces of a digital archive. The two core components are the images and the metadata — the cataloging and tagging. 


The imaging, I think, is the most — not misunderstood, but we don’t have a lot of information out there about it. Because people think they’re going to scan something, and that’s digital, and I can use it. Here I have this file. Oftentimes, then, they take whatever they just scanned, and they do throw it away. But scanning and digital preservation aren’t the same thing. 


So, the first component of a digital archive is creating an archival master TIFF file. So, when you scan something, you scan it with a desktop scanner or whatever. You tend to scan it to a JPEG, a PNG, a PDF. Those are all what we geeks call the web derivative files. They’re meant to use on the web. They’re great — you can put them on social, you can share them. That’s what their purpose is, but they’re a very small file. And they’re in a format that, a couple years from now, if that long, the web’s not going to render those images anymore. It’s just not. There’s going to be a new file format. We’re already seeing it with live photos. That’s always going to be changing. 


And so, rather than be daunted by it, we have to constantly keep up with this change. We need a strategy that’s a true preservation strategy. So that involves, in our imaging labs here, the best practices are an overhead camera capture. If you pay someone to digitize your materials, there are lots of — and our website has some resources on this — you want to capture a very, very large file. And there’s an international standard about what that file should be. 


And the idea is, as technology changes, you can always go back to that file and create new derivative formats. But if you scan to a smaller format, you can’t do that. You’re going to continue to have (a) compressed (image), and the quality isn’t going to be the same. Or it’s going to be stuck in a file format that nobody can open anymore. So that’s one piece of it. 


The other piece is how the materials are cataloged and tagged. So, I’ve said that often one needs to think like a researcher in these older software platforms. You think, like going to a card catalog, you often have to type “last name, first name” in order to find someone. That’s not very Google-friendly. People expect to search materials using the normal words that they use and even maybe having a typo or two, but that algorithm is going to produce the results they’re expecting. And if no results are produced, then they’re going to assume it doesn’t exist. So, you can produce as many perfectly digitally preserved files that are going to be great for all time, but nobody’s ever going to be able to find them if you don’t get that piece right of the access. 


So those two core components of digital archives — those are the things to get right, and the greatest challenges, really, are around understanding that. Investing the time and resources necessary to create that sort of environment. Because it can often be cost-prohibitive, it’s so daunting. And there’s just this … pressure to become digital. So, people scan it, and that’s almost worse than doing nothing. 


Host: What are some of the types of organizations that frequently are looking for digital archiving solutions? 


Kristen Gwinn-Becker: I think history is everywhere. It’s absolutely everywhere. And so, I often say that any organization that’s older than 5 minutes and can discover new value from being able to tell their story is a potential HistoryIT partner. So, we work a lot with organizations — people are always like, “What, you work with fraternities and sororities?” “What, you work with Junior Leagues?” “You work with professional sports?” We really, our market is very large. 


Of course, we work in the places you would expect us to work — museums, historical societies, libraries. The places where most people think history lives. It’s absolutely imperative that we get that digital in the right way. But I’m also really passionate about all of these troves of histories: nonprofit organizations; businesses small, medium, large; families; churches and their religious congregations of all denominations. Because those all have the stories that are hidden in them. They’re able to tell stories that often organizations don’t even know they can tell because they don’t even know what’s there. So, they tell stories about them, about the organization. 


Sororities, for example. We work with many sororities, many fraternities. Sororities are not just the history of that organization; they’re the history of women in higher education in this country over 150 years. And so, the history of — you can tell so many stories, you can see bigger stories through that lens, and that’s something I’m quite passionate about. 


You know, we really do work with pretty much anyone who has piles of paper and objects and artifacts and photographs. They need to not only preserve the materials because they’re the only ones in existence that can tell these stories, both good and bad. I think it’s imperative that we find a solution for all of them. 


Host: So often what happens is when someone retires, someone passes away, someone leaves an organization, so much of the context around the objects that they left behind or the objects they were stewarding gets lost as well. So, do you ever run into challenges with some of that when you go through these digitization projects with organizations? 


Kristen Gwinn-Becker: So, we actually look at every piece of an archive as an opportunity — as an untapped opportunity. If you have thousands of photographs and you don’t know some of the people in them, what isn’t known is just as important to tag as what is known. 


So, Alpha Phi’s digital museum, for example. We tag every single name and every photo and every object and every document, every page. And so, you might have a photo with five women, we’ve identified three of them, but then it’s also going to have a tag for unidentified Alpha Phi. What does that enable the organization to do beyond, say, “We have a whole lot of photos, and we don’t know people in it”? It’s an opportunity to engage. So, if there’s information to be discovered, and we are able to also quickly and easily identify what that information is, then there’s a social media campaign. “Hey, here’s a photograph from the University of Colorado from 1974–76. Who knows these women?” It’s an opportunity to learn more. 


Certainly, we could as researchers go out and spend — it would take a lot more time and money to dig in and research who these people are or were, but someone out is there’s going to have some perspective or some ideas, and so it’s an opportunity to capture that. That’s really how we see it. 


But it’s also imperative that we do it as soon as possible. Particularly membership-based organizations — there’s so much knowledge. I guess that’s true of every kind of organization. There’s so much institutional knowledge that it’s always imperative that we capture it as soon as possible. 


Host: Absolutely. And you brought up a point that leads into another question, which is: You mentioned one opportunity with identifying unknown people in a photograph, but what are some of the opportunities that exist for organizations to leverage their historical content? What are some of the ways you see them using these digital archives really successfully? 


Kristen Gwinn-Becker: Top of the list is fundraising and engagement, audience engagement, whether that’s member engagement, alumni engagement, general engagement of the public in their story. Having content to tell various stories about your history. Those are by far the largest. And fundraising in particular. 


So, the project to build your digital archive over whatever period of time — that’s a project that fundraisers can work to build toward. And we spend a lot of time working with our partners to help them understand that raising money both for and with historical projects is not just to be focused on the 2% of your membership or your public that self-identify as caring about history. Because really only 2% genuinely do enough to give their money to it, is my estimate. But 100% of people care about themselves and their own legacy and the legacy of organizations they belong to or a particular aspect of it. 


So, we look at — and we are not fundraisers, by the way, to be clear. That’s purely in your realm. But we look at how they can utilize content in smaller campaigns. So, it’s not raising money for history; we’re raising money to preserve the legacy of military service, in this instance, or philanthropy or athletics or whatever these topics are because all that content relates to something. 


So, there’s that opportunity for fundraising. Then, once you complete a digital archive and museum, and it’s been tagged at that level I was talking about — every name, every subject, every event — then people whose job and/or hobby, whose passion it is to engage people, whether to donate funds or to become more involved in an organization or to spread the word — whatever that piece is, you’re able to, within minutes, put together a customized presentation that is specific to a person or a group or a topic that they’re passionate about if your organization has a connection to it. 


Because you’re just typing in a Google-like environment, and you’re using tags to pull all this content together, as well as discovering new opportunities. “Wow, did you ever know that we did this? Or that this person was really involved here?” It’s really fascinating to see how the use of that digital archive and all the content in it — once it’s accessible — all the various ways people use that storytelling platform to engage people. 


Host: You’re certainly involved in driving what the future of digital archives and that storytelling piece looks like for organizations. What do you see is the next step? What is something you see on the horizon that we should be thinking about? 


Kristen Gwinn-Becker: There’s always just how much more there is to do, and that we can’t do it fast enough. I think that the more people who are doing what we’re doing and taking the information we’re providing, the knowledge we’re providing, and sharing that with other people, I think that’s important. 


But as a technologist, without doubt the key piece in our world today that will change what we do is AI. In most ways for the better, if we’re very careful with it. Even to build a digital archive, many of the organizations that invest in digitizing or digitally preserving everything that they have — which is the best approach to take — even when we do it, we spend usually 60,000 to 80,000 hours to do that. 


AI gives us the possibility of a lot of that content being tagged a lot more easily. There are a lot of biases we have to be very careful of, but it will change the amount of time it takes to tag a considerable amount of content. We have to do it in a very careful way. We’re integrating it into our software — but again, carefully and thoughtfully. But that is the piece that will change, I think, our ability to preserve more and more quickly. 


Host: I feel like AI is an enormous topic that we could probably spend another 30 minutes talking about. Especially with how generative AI models are fed — by basically feeding it information and historical data and, just, any scrap of data you can give it to be able to enable the AI to identify patterns. Because essentially, artificial brains work the same way as our brains do. It’s all about pattern recognition and being able to build the intelligence off linking those patterns together. 


But a lot of the generative AI models that we see are fed with information that is already digital. So, how do you see more and more organizations digitizing their archives potentially shape … the past shaping the future of AI? And again, huge question, but it’s just super fascinating. 


Kristen Gwinn-Becker: So, from our perspective, it’s less about the generative piece of producing content from that, although it makes it even more imperative that we have histories and archives of organizations and individuals who have always been marginalized from history. That content has to be in there. AI does work like a human brain, but a lot faster, and it has the same biases as our human race does. 


I think, in terms of what we do, how it will be a significant game changer is in things like facial recognition. Being able to create subject tags according to some sort of very smart approach to machine learning and the type of content that’s in an archive. An archive is only as accessible as its tagging is sophisticated and consistent. And for us, that’s humans, and that will always be humans in order to do it correctly. But there’s just a lot — because it can work so much faster — there’s a lot that will raise the bar on this, so we’ll be able to do it faster and hopefully considerably more cost effective in the future. 


Host: Kristen, I have enjoyed our conversation today immensely. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience before we wrap up today? 


Kristen Gwinn-Becker: No, learn more about what we do. HistoryIT.com, #savehistory on all the social places. Always happy to talk about anything relating to bringing your organization new value with your historical content. 


Host: Super, super interesting. Thanks again for taking some time to sit down with us today. 


Kristen Gwinn-Becker: Thank you, Leah.