Filing System Basics for Non-Profits

Posted in office operations / filing

Filing System Basics for Non-Profits

I remember a conversation I had with a colleague from another organization. She confessed she had all her hard copy files in order but didn’t really understand how to make a computer filing system. Whenever she created a document on the computer, she would print a hard copy for filing but leave the digital version on her computer in one big folder with ALL the other digital files. Wait, what?!? That’s right, nothing on her computer was sorted, grouped, or arranged in any kind of order. She said she had a hard time finding files on the computer. I can only imagine!

Note to my readers. The layout on this post has always been problematic. My website support folks can't seem to fix it. So, I've replaced all the file list (previously with wonky spacing) with photos of the files lists. It isn't a perfect fix but should make it much easier to read!

A strong filing system is critical to staying organized, but I also find it saves tons of time. If I know where to look for a document months after it was first created, I don’t have to waste my time hunting through piles of paper (hard copy OR digital).

Over the years I’ve worked in offices where I had to learn an existing filing system and set-up my own from scratch. For this post I want to share the system I use now. I created it new, but also had to incorporate some old files, so it has elements of both.

I started by using the groupings in my annual budget and filled it out from there. My budget includes almost all of the operational and governance categories I need, so it made an excellent starting guide and the two match really well. As you read, please don’t feel you need to be limited by these categories. I certainly flesh out each one with nuances specific to my own needs. You should too.


My financial files are some of my most important and comprehensive files. In my post on the Annual Audit, I shared that I organize my hard copy financial files into 4 categories for each month.

Let’s say I’m looking for a cheque written in November of 2016. I would find it in: Financial Files / 2016 Operating Year / November / Payables.

My digital financial files are also grouped by month within each operating year. While the hard copy files include all the payments (see Payments), deposits (see Money), and bank statements I don’t keep digital duplicates of those files. My accounting software has all the historical files and my bank can always provide copies of old statements. My digital financials include basic financial statements (see Financial Statements), budgets, and budget reports.

Let’s say I’m looking for a budget report given to the board in 2015. I would find it in: Financial Files / 2015 Operating Year / Reports.


I use 4 major categories for my operational files, but you may need something different for your work.


I have a team of program staff who keep their own program files in hard and digital copies organized by program and sorted chronologically. We have policies that guide how long program files need to be kept and how they can be destroyed (e.g., secure shredding).

If there are program files I need to keep as a supervisor, I keep them digitally, organized by common category sorted chronologically by year.

Let’s say I’m looking for a document from a 2015 leadership development workshop. I would find it in: Programs and Services / Workshops / Leadership Development / 2015.


Most non-profits have quite a lot of grant files. I don’t keep my grant files in with the Operations Files, they have their own major filing category. Since grants and funding involve money from other agencies, I keep pretty extensive files in this area until the grant is completed and I’ve received a letter saying the file is now closed.

When it comes to my hard copy grant files, I keep everything, but not forever. I find that questions from funding agencies seem to come so long after I’ve written the grant, that I need all my notes to be able to remember!

Once I’ve received the letter saying the grant file is closed, I hold the hard copy grant files for 2 years. If there have been no further questions after 2 years, I scan the entire hard copy grant package, store the scan with the digital files, and set aside the hard copies to be destroyed (e.g., secure shredding).


Client files can be pretty small (e.g., a single folder of membership forms) or quite large (e.g., landowner files). Choosing what will work best for you will require you to evaluate what will work best in your specific situation.

Will you always deal with a client by name (e.g., a member, or maybe vendor), or will that sometimes change, and you will need to deal with a location (e.g. a piece of property where the owner might change)?

In these instances, I prefer to keep files categorized by the fixed entity. So, I might keep files on specific vendors, but for properties, I would keep files by the land location, not the property owner.

Choosing between hard copy and digital will, again, require you to evaluate what will work best in your specific situation.


We’ve all read the horror stories where a past employee takes the organization to court 15 years later and wins their case. I never want to be without my HR information, so I keep all HR files forever.

By policy I am required to keep HR files that an employee can look at, at any time. I limit these hard copy files to two strict categories and make sure the files are always in a professional order that can be viewed by the employee at any time.

Hard copy HR files are at a huge risk for identity theft. I keep all HR files, both those in my office and those in storage, in a locked file cabinet.

I keep digital duplicates of all the hard copy forms. After the end of the operating year, I scan the employee’s hard copy Administration files for the year, so they will be picked up by my computer back-up system. I like to be thorough and cautious with HR files.

Digital HR files are also at a huge risk for identity theft. I NEVER scan a document with an employee’s SIN, date or birth, or any other details that could be stolen.

My HR digital files are for my own private use, so I can keep personal notes for items I might want to reference later (e.g., evaluation rationales, key dates). I never keep employee identity information, only my own notes.


General administration files will be specific to your organization and unique to how you run it.


Hard copy Board files are at a risk for identity theft if they contain personal identifying information. I keep all hard copy Board files, in a locked file cabinet in storage. I don’t keep any hard copy Board files in my office.


I have two goals when it comes to my files.

Deciding when to clean out files can seem like an overwhelming task. For my financial and HR files, they have key dates when they change, so sorting through them annually is the perfect schedule.

I cull my informational files about a week before I send off my bin for secure shredding (once or twice a year). This provides an opportunity for me to safely recycle/shred hard copy documents I no longer need. I use this task as a signal to also clean up the digital files, which can simply be deleted.


How long to keep your files will depend on your policies and governing legislation. When you find you need to keep files indefinitely, I strongly recommend keeping your storage room tidy. Group files in clearly marked boxes and put files you may need to access often in an easy to reach location.

I keep boxes of HR files for past employees, boxes for each financial year (including the annual audit), and boxes for past grants. I find I don’t need to keep much more than that. You can decide what you need to keep by imagining how you might have to access the information if it is requested. If you were to get questions from the CRA, or a major funding agency, or your board of directors, would you be able to easily put your hands on the documents you need?


Have you ever started a job with an existing filing system and thought, what a disaster? My advice is don’t sweat it. A filing system, even an old one, can be easily changed. Live with it for a few months and adapt as you go. Yes, that might mean you have to toss a bunch of file labels and start over, but that’s a small price to pay to make a filing system work for you.

Don’t forget, file folders come in lots of great colours so you can have a little fun. 

Thanks for taking the time to read my ideas. If you know someone who needs to read this, why not grab the link, and share it with them. Let’s work together to set-up easy filing systems.


Hi, I'm Christie Saas, former board member, current Executive Director, and non-profit volunteer. I remember well, those early years when I lacked the training, the confidence, and the work-life balance to focus on becoming the best non-profit leader I could be.

Fast-forward past many bumps in the road, lessons learned, and you’ll find me still in the trenches, but a little wiser, a little calmer, and a whole lot happier. I love my work and I want to help you love yours too.

I created so non-profit leaders never need to feel alone. I’m here to help. If you’re a brand-new non-profit leader, or a little more seasoned, someone who’s looking to make a meaningful contribution and still have time for a full life away from the job, you’re in the right place.

© Christie Saas 2022 All Rights Reserved

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