What is in this guide?

  1. Why should organisations have a good filing system
  2. Important things to know about filing
  3. How to set up a filing system

  1. Why should oganisations have a good filing system

Filing means keeping documents in a safe place and being able to find them easily and quickly. Documents that are cared for will not easily tear, get lost or dirty.

A filing system is the central record-keeping system for an organisation. It helps you to be organised, systematic, efficient and transparent. It also helps all people who should be able to access information to do so easily.

It is always a pleasure when someone looks for something and is able to find it without difficulties. In our organisations we work in groups. We receive and send out documents on different subjects. We need to keep these documents for future reference. If these documents are not cared for, we cannot account for all our organisational activities. Everyone who needs to use documents should know where to get them.

  1. Important things to know about filing

What do we file?

We file documents that are sent to us by other people or organisations. We also file records of all our organisational activities. These can be letters, memos, reports, financial records, policy documents, etc.

When do we file?

This depends on how busy your office is. In very busy organisations filing is done at least every day and usually first thing in the morning. In a small or less busy office you could file once or twice a week.

Equipment used for filing

Filing Cabinet - It is used to keep flat files and suspension or hanging files
Steel Cabinet - It is used to keep big files that need to be locked up
Date Stamp - It is used to date stamp documents that are received on daily basis so that they are filed in chronological order and so we have a record of when we received the document
Register - It is used to record files taken out and files returned
Filing shelves - It is used to file box files
Box file - This is a big file that is used to keep big documents that cannot go into a filing cabinet. They are kept in shelves.

What files are used and how are they used?

Clip folders - they are used for documents that need to be taken out very often; they hold documents tightly so that they do not fall out.
Folders - paper or cardboard folders are used to keep loose documents together. The folders are placed inside suspension or box files.
Suspension file -the suspension files are used to keep documents in filing cabinets. The files are put into the drawers upright. The suspension files hangs down from the cradle. These files always remain in the cabinets but folders inside them can be taken out.
Box files - they are used to keep big documents including magazines and books.
Lever arch files -documents are kept firm in these files and allow one to look at documents without taking them out of the file.

Methods of filing

There are 5 methods of filing:

  • Filing by Subject/Category
  • Filing in Alphabetical order
  • Filing by Numbers/Numerical order
  • Filing by Places/Geographical order
  • Filing by Dates/Chronological order

These ways of filing is called classification and means organising things that are alike, together. You can, however, combine some of these methods. For example, files that are kept together according to what they are about we say are subject filing but, inside each file the documents could be filed according to date order.

  1. How to set up a filing system
  1. Filing Categories

To make a filing system more useful, we can group files into CATEGORIES. A category is a group/collection of things that belong together.

eg. PPWAWU, SARHWU, NUM and NUMSA all belong to the category Unions.

When we file by categories, we try to file in a logical way; we put files together because they belong together; we don't put them together just because they start with the same letter.

For example, we could put all our files into categories. Correspondence could be one category that takes up a whole drawer of our filing cabinet. Inside that drawer we could have sub-categories. Sub categories could be things like:

  • Fundraising correspondence
  • Correspondence with other organisations
  • Correspondence with members
  • Correspondence with members of the public
  • Correspondence with Board
    …and so on.

Some documents may have to filed in two places to make it easier to access the information. For example you may have a category for "funders" and for "correspondence". In your funders category you will have a sub-category for each major funder and you will sometimes have to file a letter from a funder in that funder's file as well as in your fundraising correspondence file.

  1. How to form categories

1. Sort all your documents out into piles that you think belong together.
2. Give each pile a category name.
3. Make a list of categories.
4. Look at your list critically: Ask yourself: Can we combine any categories?. Should we break up a category into two categories? What sub-categories do we need? Do we need to have alphabetical files within a category?

Make sure you don't have too many categories. It should not be difficult for anyone to decide in which category they are likely to find the information they need.

  1. Filing key

Once you have decided on your categories, you will have to draw up a filing index so that everyone can understand the system you used and find the information they want. This index is called a filing key.

Write up a filing key by listing all the categories and sub-categories in the order they are filed in. Make sure it is laid out so that everyone can understand it. Put it on the filing cabinet and also put a key for each drawer on the front of the drawers. Give everyone a copy of the whole filing key.
Make sure that everyone who does filing understands the key and uses it for filing.

  1. New files

Don't create new files unless you are absolutely sure the information does not logically fit into an existing file. Put the new file in the correct category and write it in the filing key immediately. Give everyone a copy of the new categories as soon as possible.

  1. Filing Correspondence

All letters must be filed in 2 places

Incoming mail

1. The original letter together with a copy of your answer goes into the SUBJECT FILE.
2. A second copy of the letter goes into the CORRESPONDENCE IN file.

Outgoing mail

1. One copy of the letter goes into the SUBJECT FILE. Any letters in answer to your letter must go into this file; and all future correspondence about the subject.
2. One copy goes into the CORRESPONDENCE OUT file.

  1. Filing Rules

There are two basic rules underlying filing:

ALPHABETICAL FILING - filing according to the letter of the alphabet
DATE FILING - most recent files on top

These rules are basic because they apply to all filing systems. When we file by name, subject and area we should always file alphabetically and by date.

Alphabetical filing rules

Rule 1: File by name in terms of the first letter
Example:  African Eagle
                Duncan & Co

Rule 2: If the first letters are the same, file in terms of the second letter.
Example:  Clarence

Rule 3: File in terms of surnames
Example:  Donkor, SJ
                Nkomo PS
                Shongwe RO
                Yesufu ED

Rule 4: If surnames are the same, file in terms of the initial
Example:  Cato, JS
                Cato, JU
                Cato, RS
                Cato, TM

Rule 5: Some surnames have prefixes and are filed in terms of the first letter of the prefix
Example:  de Gruchy, JR
                de la Rey, OP
                van der Linden, MN
                van Rensburg, MJ

Rule 6: When there are two surnames, file under the first surname.
Example:  Mokoena & Khumalo
                Nxumalo & Abrahams
                Saloojee & Cassim
                Verachi & Ntuli

Rule 7: Mac Mc & M' all files as Mac; St and Saint all filed as Saint
Example:  MacDonald
                Saint Christopher's
                St Margaret's

Rule 8: When the file does not have the name of a person we file by the MOST IMPORTANT WORD in the name or by the name of the PLACE
Example:  Active Wheel Co
               The Star
               The City of Johannesburg
               Northcliff Printers

  1. Taking files out - [Use the filing key]

Making sure you don't lose files

When people take files out of the filing system, or they take documents out of a file, we must ensure that they don't lose them or forget to bring them back. People must never take the suspension files out, they should only take out the flat folder inside the file. To keep track of files we need a record of all the files or document that people borrow.

To do this we can use:

A file-out book - a file-out book is simply a book in which we write

  • Who borrowed the file or document
  • Name of the file or document
  • When they borrowed it
  • When they returned it


Ms Modise Reports file 10-02-2001 12-02-2001
Mr NgwenyaFinance file23-01-2001 

The person responsible for maintaining the system can us the file-out book to check who has which files an remind them to return it.

A file-out card - file-out cards are used in a filing cabinet. They are the same size as the files and are put in the place of the file, which has been borrowed.
On the file-out card we write the same information as in the book, i.e.

  • Who borrowed the file or document
  • Name of the file or document
  • When they borrowed it
  • When they returned it

Finding information

Keeping information in files is only useful if we, and everyone in our organisation, knows how to find the documents we need. We file information so that we can find it easily. Finding information that is in the files is called retrieving information.

Everyone who needs to use the files should be able to find information quickly and easily. This means that they must know the method of filing we use.

A filing method book could be a small book that we use to explain how we file documents. For example:

  • All letters are filed under correspondence
  • All membership cards are filed under number
  • Reports are filed by subject

An index book can also help us to find files. The name of each file can be written on the page with that letter. For example:
The MINUTES file is written on the M page. Then we can write where that file is:
"MINUTES - filing cabinet 1 drawer 2 or lever arch file 4"

  1. Filing procedure, maintenance and safety

Filing procedure

Step 1: Receiving the document
If it is a letter or document that came through the mail, you record it
in the "mail received" register and write the date received or date stamp it

Step 2: Action
Forward the letter/document to the person that has to deal with it.

Step 3: Follow up
Check that the letter has been dealt with.

Step 4: Collecting Documents to be filed
All documents and two copies of the replies must be collected in a filing tray.

Step 5: Filing
Choose a regular time to file every day so that you are never left with a huge pile of loose documents. Use a sorter to help you file and remember to file by date order.

Maintaining the filing system

One of the most important reasons why we file is to keep document safe. It is therefore very important to make sure that all papers and files are kept in good condition. Here are some ways that we can do this:

  • Keep documents that are waiting to be filed in trays, do not leave them lying about on desks or shelves.
  • File documents away at least once a day, or if your organisation is very small you can do it once a week.
  • Do not put too much in files or folders
  • Put new covers on old files which get a lot of use and have become worn or torn.
  • Box files and lever arch files can hold more than simple folders.
  • Never allow filing drawers or shelves to become too full. Acquire new filing cabinets when necessary.

Good housekeeping and safety

At the end of every day you should:

  • File all the documents you can
  • Put away those you cannot file in filing trays
  • Lock up all confidential documents
  • Place all waste paper in rubbish bins
  • Leave desks tidy



1.A Correspondence

1.A.1 Director
1.A.2 Bookkeeper
1.A.3 Training officers
1.A.4 Administrative officers
1.A.5 Programme Co-ordinators

1.B Operations

1.B.1 Rental, Postal Box, Telephones, Faxes, etc.
1.B.2 Internal organisational forms
1.B.3 Mailing list
1.B.4 Constitution, Articles of Association, legal documentation, etc.
1.B.5 Office Equipment inventory, service and maintenance agreements, etc.
1.B.6 Miscellaneous

1.C Committees

1.C.1 Director's Reports
1.C.2 Minutes and Reports
1.C.3 Finance Committee

1.D Planning

1.D.1 Annual Planning Meetings
1.D.2 Issues in Planning
1.D.3 Targets
1.D.4 Evaluations


2.A Procedures

2.A.1 Personnel Procedures
2.A.2 Conditions of Employment
2.A.3 Contract of Employment
2.A.4 Induction
2.A.5 Job descriptions
2.A.6 Performance Management System
2.A.7 Leave

2.B Staff

2.B.1 Current Employees in alphabetical order (locked in Director's office)
2.B.2 Testimonials
2.B.3 Staff Training
2.B.4 Job applications


3.A Financial Administration

3.A.1 Budget
3.A.2 Salaries
3.A.3 Financial Statements
3.A.4 Petty Cash
3.A.5 Auditor's Statements
3.A.6 Tax
3.A.7 Strategies
3.A.8 Bank
3.A.9 Debtors
3.A.10 Bookkeeping


4.A Fundraising Administration and General

4.A.1 Fundraising Act
4.A.2 Fundraising Planning and Proposals sent
4.A.3 Fundraising Systems
4.A.4 Fundraising Trips and Campaigns

4.B Funding Agencies

4.B.1 List of Agencies
4.B.2 General file for local foundations
4.B.3 SA Business in General
4.B.4 USA Funding Contacts

4.C Donor files

4.C.1 DMMA Foundation
4.C.2. SOCTA
4.C.3. ZDA


5.A General

5.A.1 Reports - Training department
5.A.2 Community Workshop outlines and materials
5.A.3 Training Contracts
5.A.4 Membership Skills Training
5.A.5 Office skills training
5.A.6 Correspondence (separate files for each client)