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A Guide to Documents and their Shelf Life

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Associations and not-for-profit organizations are bound by legal requirements and internal policies to maintain and preserve certain types of documents for a period of time. In doing so, it is important to stay organized and be efficient with your files and use of storage space. Below is a guideline for some of the most common types of association documents and their shelf lives (caveat: each not-for-profit should have their own retention policy, generally based on the regulations in their jurisdiction; what we have highlighted below can be used as a general guideline.)

  • Bylaws, other governing or corporate documents, meeting minutes and a copy of any publications – to be kept indefinitely
  • Financial records, expired legal documents, reports to the government, and copies of correspondence/communications – 7-10 years
  • Membership, programming and conference materials – generally determined by your board, but we recommend digitizing and destroying hard copies on a regular basis

Many people fall into one of two camps – having a fear of purging your files, or having any clutter or piles of paper in your space driving you mad! Keep in mind that many things that you have in hard copy can be great for reference, but a physical copy of absolutely everything is no longer necessary. For the things that you must keep, here are some tips for keeping organized and feeling good about decluttering:

  1. Digitize, digitize, digitize – embrace your virtual “filing cabinet” and take the time to create a logical and easily accessible file path for your important files.
  2.  Where necessary, go old school – create an organized physical filing system for things that you need to keep (either personally or bound by policy) by colour coordinating your folders, using labels, indicating dates, etc.
  3. Keep a running list of everything you have in storage and its location – without this, you’ll lose track of what you actually have, and defeat the purpose of keeping it in the first place.
  4. Beware the perils of physical files – ensure that you have a designated safe storage area (and consider things like waterproofing your boxes) for files so you know they won’t go missing or get damaged.
  5. Dating – set yourself a reminder to sort through old files on a pre-determined basis (ideally annually, but at least every two to three years) so you get rid of everything that is hitting its “expiration date”.
  6. Search and destroy – make sure this is done methodically and safely, and use a shredding company if the volume is high to do this in a timely manner.

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