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How to Be a Recordkeeping Super Hero

December 15, 2010 | Washington, D.C.

Want rock-solid records so when the IRS calls you can reply in a flash with action-packed atomic records that will vanquish all adversaries? With a little super hero training and a lot of discipline, you can have sleek, strong and snappy records! Start with Ten Super Hero Lessons revealed by the Vermont Land Trust. Yippee Kai Yay!

A super hero record system includes a retention policy based on a risk management analysis and the requirements of applicable laws so that your land trust keeps all essential records and disposes of extraneous ones. Your organization can then demonstrate a consistently imple¬mented and credible record system in court or in an audit. Chris Moore and Jon Osborne led the technology evolution of Vermont Land Trust’s record systems. Their lessons learned follow.

Ten Lessons Learned on Super Record Retention

  1. Getting agreement or even better consensus before you start archiving is vital.
  2. The most important decision you will have to make is what categories of documents to keep. People have strongly held opinions about this question. Be prepared to invest the time to reach consensus. You will find that some people want to keep every document. You’ll need to work to identify what should be destroyed and when.
  3. Getting a representative list of all the types of documents you have will save rework later.  You may have to dig deep to discover all the obscure document types in your files.
  4. You will need both project naming and document naming protocols.
  5. Decide your electronic folder structure and pilot it with a few complex projects before finalizing.
  6. Assign people to the project who understand what they are looking at.  Let them pace the project.  They deserve your gratitude!
  7. Develop an easy method for pulling outdated documents that you intend to keep for a fixed period but later discard.
  8. Keep track of your shredding “regrets,” you may wish to amend your retention protocols based on trends you discover.
  9. One your backfill is complete assign responsibility (ideally to one person) for prospectively merging and purging both paper and electronic documents at closing. Be sure to have a back up for this person.
  10. When deciding the naming, organization and retention of your documents it is also helpful to think about the naming, organization of your image library and your spatial database and connect all of your databases.

Chris Moore reflected on the VLT records systems and reviewed policies from other organizations recently such as the Colorado Open Lands data management policy. “I realized that VLT’s records policy doesn’t include mention of the GIS server or the databases. I consider those items as information more than records, but it might benefit us to include them in the future,” he said. The greatest super hero attribute may be the willingness to continually consider system refinements and to learn from others.


Additional Super Hero Strategies from Chris Moore

  • Purging, sorting, scanning and naming for more than 3 months at a stretch would have been a bad idea.  There are only so many times that one can re-name the same document and use a staple-puller.  At the same time, doing it any less than full time would also have been a bad idea.  Working all day, every day for a short period of time allowed for greater consistency and quality control.
  • Using staff familiar with the documents was a huge advantage.  We had considered hiring temps or interns or even contracting the work out to a document scanning company but because of the uniqueness of our work, we felt that quality control could be best assured by keeping the work in-house.
  • One of the greatest anxieties at the start of this project was that some staff members felt that we should keep every single document ever created and that we would regret recycling certain documents. It was helpful to allow staff to review the master list and also allow for flexibility in changing the status of documents. For example, VLT project counsel presented a legitimate reason to keep appraisal summaries forever, so we’ve recently begun scanning those. With that in mind, we had to remind staff that we could not keep everything; the marginal benefit of doing so was outweighed by the cost. It is also important to note that with some exceptions, most VLT documents are available in other locations (Town land records, with the landowner, with a partner).  If something was inadvertently recycled, chances were good that we could find another copy.
  • For projects going forward, VLT legal staff use the master document list and naming protocol, and documents are scanned immediately after closing.  For the first two years after the closing, the paper files are kept in our headquarters.  We discovered that if we ever needed to go back into those files, it was happening within the first two years.  After two years, we send the files to offsite storage.


Remember that you can adapt this process to any size organization.  While VLT is one of the largest land trusts in the country, the process it used is both simple and flexible. You can size it to fit your needs, so don’t let the numbers thwart you.

Disciplined Purging, Retention and Archive Process

  • The first step is to determine what documents you have in your files.  Then decide if, how and where you want to keep those documents.
  • VLT decided to scan to PDF any document that we wanted to keep.  In the years leading up to this project, we had established an individual electronic folder for each of our projects on one of our internal data servers.  Each folder was populated with an Archive folder into which we saved the scanned documents.  We also decided to compile all of the paper files that we wanted to save and house them in an off-site storage facility. View examples of folder structures.
  • We pulled about two dozen files and went through each one, writing down everything that we found.  We then circulated this list amongst the staff asking for additions.
  • Upon compiling a master list, VLT created three categories for each listing that related to how the document would be archived:
  1. Should the original paper copy of the document be saved and for how long?
  2. Should the document be scanned to PDF?
  3. Should the original electronic version of the paper document be saved and for how long? (i.e. the MS Word version of a signed and recorded conservation easement)
  • We gave this list to management and attorneys.  We asked them to rank each document.  If a document was determined worthy of keeping, it was assigned one of four lengths of time.  Some documents would be kept forever; some for 8 years (the statute of limitation plus one year), some for 2 years and some were immediately shredded.
  • After the list was complete, VLT established a naming protocol for those documents that we wanted to scan to PDF.
  • VLT implemented the archiving project over several years.  The reasons for this were several:
  1. Our stewardship staff has downtime between January and March and we planned to take advantage of that availability for this project.
  2. Our documents were in two locations in the State.  Files related to the stewardship of our conserved properties were housed in a field office and files generated pre-closing were housed in our headquarters.  Given the limited staff availability we wanted to complete one area before moving on to the next.
  3. At the time we had 25 years (and counting) of project files (1700 conservation easements spread over Vermont’s 255 towns).  We knew this would be a daunting task.  Rather than risk burnout and apathy towards the project we decided to spread the work over several years.
  • VLT had ten staff members working on this project and we divided them into 5 teams of two people each.  Because they are used several times daily, we decided to start with our stewardship files in our field office.  We purchased a large multifunction scanner and dedicated a desktop computer to the project.  The scanner was wired to send the document directly to the desktop computer, which was connected to our larger organization wide network and servers.
  • The master list with the naming protocol was left at the scanning station and each team was also given a copy.  We also spent a day with each team explaining the process.
  • Fortunately all of our stewardship files were organized in the same manner.  Monitoring reports on the inside cover, easement on the third tab, baseline documentation report attached to the rear cover, etc.  This made the scanning task easy and repetitive.
  • Each team handled the scanning process slightly differently, but in general one person would open the file, remove and scan the document and the second person was seated at the computer and would re-name the file based on the scanning protocol and save it to the proper Archive folder on our network.
  • The team was also responsible for taking all of the paper documents that we wished to keep and to insert them into a folder that would be sent to the off-site storage facility.  We recycled those documents that we had decided not to keep in any form.
  • Surveys are a challenge. Our scanner could only handle documents up to 11”x17” in size and most of the surveys were larger.  As the teams went through the files, they were instructed to collect surveys separately from the rest of the documents.  We later purchased a large format scanner and are in the final stages of converting those to PDF files.
  • VLT also had a master list of all of our projects.  At the end of the day, each team would cross off those that they had completed so that we could track our progress.  The next day’s team would simply pick up where the previous team had finished.
  • The scanning process for our stewardship files took about 3 full months.  After it was complete the files destined for the off-site storage were brought to our headquarters so that they could be appended with the pre-closing documents.
  • The following January we began scanning the pre-closing documents that had been housed in the headquarters.  The process was essentially a repeat of what had happened in the field office, only with different documents.

Time and Cost Estimates

Pre-project Planning Phase: Approximately 200 billable hours spent on project design and implementation, including staff training.

Time: approx. 200 work days of scanning over three years x 6 hrs per day = 1,200 hours x 2 person teams = 2,400 (does not include drive time to/from scanning location) to scan approximately 1,700 files.  So this was less than two person hours a file but did not include large format maps and surveys.  You could estimate 2 hours a file for scanning once you have all the files in one place, the teams assembled and trained, the technology in place and the systems and policies written and approved.

Personnel: Each scan day involved two people, so 2,400 billable hours.

Paper file size: We had approximately 1,700 separate landowner files.  Size varied greatly depending on age and complexity of project, but averaged approximately 15-20 individual documents per file, totaling 50-60 pages of scanned material.  Most files contained additional duplicate material that was recycled.

Electronic file size: Total file size of scanned documents average 15-20MB per project, increasing annually.

Technological:

  • Dedicated multi function Canon copier/scanner/fax machine
  • Large format scanner for digitizing easement maps and surveys
  • Dedicated computer workstation connected to scanner
  • Increased hard drive space for electronic storage
  • Increased capacity for tape backup system for electronic files


Miscellaneous:

  • Travel costs to field offices for scanning of Stewardship files
  • Offsite storage rental fee for original paper documents
  • Secure Shred contract for shredding sensitive paper files that were duplicates.
  • One-time moving company cost for transporting all paper files to the off-site storage facility.


Ongoing:

  • Continued need to increase hard drive storage space and offsite paper storage space as additional projects close and documents are created
  • For every project that closes, approximately 45 minutes per project is spent scanning and archiving documents.


New Hampshire Super Heroes Do it Too!

The Monadnock Conservancy (NH) just completed a stewardship file cleanout and restructuring. They purged correspondence and documents that were not critical to easement defense and standardized their file structure. It took several weeks of staff time, but Emily Hague, Stewardship Manager, said “it was totally worth it!” A summary of the process reveals a simple but effective approach. Emily also is “happy to share more if that would be helpful.”  

A successful records system requires training and dedication. Land trusts must ensure that staff, volunteers and board members are all committed to maintaining the records system. Records maintenance is the manner of treating, handling and controlling records. No matter what stor¬age system you choose, your land trust will always have to update records while at the same time ensuring that its system is perpetually accessible, stable, safe and secure. Recordkeeping responsibilities must be assigned to appropriate land trust personnel, whether staff or volunteer, and the land trust’s records policy and procedures should reflect who in the organization is responsible for recordkeeping and record destruction.

For more information on the ultimate in records, read the following Land Trust Alliance curriculum books:

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