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If you choose to spend down in your own lifetime, taking the time to define your mission is an excellent idea. It will help give you greater focus and clarity, sharpening your sense of what is central and what is peripheral to your giving.
If you choose to create an entity that will outlive you, however, defining your mission is essential to preserving your intentions. Donor intent is easily eroded when donors fail to make clear their intentions and wishes. In the absence of clarity, fidelity to donor intent will fade as the ideas and principles that animated the founder are ignored or forgotten.
Defining your mission is not primarily a legal matter, although it may ultimately have legal consequences. In most cases, standard bylaws, trust agreements, or articles of incorporation are not designed to protect your intent. What the law requires to establish your philanthropic vehicle is often not sufficient to define your intentions or ensure fidelity to your mission. Indeed, a well-defined mission is not among the minimum legal requirements necessary to obtain IRS approval—the IRS will accept as a mission a general reference to “charity.” Your vision should be made more explicit through a mission statement (or other legacy documents) that is incorporated into your legal entity.
Defining your mission is an important step in institutionalizing your intentions so that others can, during your lifetime or in your absence, make them operational. When you are gone, the interpretation of your mission will be left to family members, trustees, and, as a last resort, the courts. The better you define your philanthropic mission during your lifetime, the better they will be able to preserve your intentions when you are gone.
Defining your mission can be a time-consuming process—it certainly takes longer than establishing the legal framework of the giving entity. Some philanthropists arrive at a clear mission only after much trial and error in making grants. Others have a clear sense of what they want to do and how they want to do it from the very beginning. Yet even in the latter case, trying to make one’s intentions operational can be very challenging. Defining a mission is a deliberative process, and achieving success often requires multiple revisions.
Thinking about Your Mission Statement
When you define your philanthropic mission, try to answer this one, crucial question: Why? If your successors are faced with a question about your intent, they can easily look up what you did and who you funded. A carefully crafted mission statement will help them understand why you did it. Your mission statement should articulate the animating principles of—the reasons behind—your philanthropy. It should describe the ideas that animate your charitable purpose: the books, people, and institutions that shaped the thinking behind your giving.
As circumstances change, a mission statement that clearly describes your philosophy of giving will help to safeguard your intentions better than any list of rules or grantees ever could. It will guide those charged with carrying out your philanthropy by helping them to answer the question: What would our founder have done in these circumstances?
The result of a desultory or weak mission statement may be a sluggish or ineffective foundation with a floundering sense of purpose. It may lead to intergenerational contentiousness, altering your charitable entity into something you would not recognize or support. It can also result in legal action where courts thwart your wishes outright. Indeed, in terms of donor intent, a well-thought-out and well-written mission statement is absolutely essential for sustaining successor education, grantmaking vitality, quality control, and productive collaboration and continuity of vision among future trustees and family members. It is vital to maintaining your intentions.
Writing Your Mission Statement
Your mission statement should explain, at minimum, your reasons for establishing a foundation. A more comprehensive—and useful—mission statement will describe the principles and beliefs that inspire and guide your giving. Likewise helpful for future trustees is a statement of preferred operating principles, grantmaking guidelines, and a consideration of how succeeding generations should perpetuate your philanthropy.
Getting your mission statement right may take some trial and error. The following exercises can help you compose a mission statement that embodies and effectively communicates your intent.
Describing your values. Describing your values simply means explaining the things that are important to you and that ought to be taken into consideration by those who will be carrying out your philanthropic mission.
- Are you religious? Do you want your faith to be reflected in your philanthropy? If so, how?
- What are the ideas, traditions, persons, events, and circumstances that shaped you as a person?
- Why are you establishing a philanthropic entity? What are your motivations?
- What would be the worst thing that could happen to the assets you’ve dedicated to charity?
- What good are you trying to achieve? What problems are you hoping to address? Are you working to improve society in general, a certain segment of society, or an institution in a particular way?
- How important is family involvement to you?
- Over time your values may come into conflict with each other, with your heirs, or with society’s changing mores. How ought such matters to be resolved?
- What parts of your foundation’s mission and grantmaking would you like to remain constant over time? What aspects are nonnegotiable?
Clarifying your language. What may seem obvious to you may not be obvious to others. When you sit down to write your mission statement, don’t take shortcuts. Ambiguous terms need to be carefully defined. Explain how you see the connections between your principles. Always try to put yourself in the position of a reader who has never met you. Would this person understand what you were hoping to accomplish? Would he or she have a clear picture of what motivated you? Would he or she have a good sense of the kinds of things you would want to support?
Take, for example, the late Dan Searle, former CEO of Searle Pharmaceuticals and benefactor of the Searle Freedom Trust. For six months, Searle worked closely to refine his mission statement with a trusted advisor, Kimberly O. Dennis. “I would sometimes write him notes asking him to clarify certain things,” recalls Dennis. “In his notes he often referred to the importance of individual responsibility as a corollary of individual freedom. If you were going to have a free society, he would say, you needed to have personal responsibility. I wanted him to clarify what role he thought government should have in enforcing the kinds of moral values that he considered integral to personal responsibility. As it turned out, Dan thought government had no place telling people how to live their lives. But I don’t think this would have come through if I hadn’t asked him to clarify his thinking, because it was obvious to him but it wasn’t obvious to me.”
“Dan went through the mission statement, paragraphs were added, paragraphs were deleted, sentences were massaged,” adds Dennis. “There is not a word in that document that Dan didn’t have there very intentionally. We had long discussions over whether we should use the word freedom or liberty, over whether America is a democracy or a democratic republic. Every single word is intentional.”
Formulating operating principles. In defining your mission, it is worth thinking about the principles that will guide the operation of your entity. This should not be a step-by-step set of instructions on day-to-day operations. Your aim is to describe the general contours, not to offer minute operational details.
- Do you want to support direct services to individuals: scholarships, medical care, food banks, and the like? Or do you want to effect change through advocacy and public education: policy work, research, publications? Are you comfortable with some mixture of both? If so, which do you prefer?
- Would you prefer to support local, regional, or national organizations?
- Do you prefer supporting small organizations? Start-ups? Well-established nonprofits?
- Would you rather that your funding be focused on several large grants or on many smaller grants?
- Do you prefer multi-year grants, start-up grants, or matching grants?
- What kind of relationship do you want with grantees? Do you want to give your grantees active guidance and direction? Or do you prefer to support them from a distance?
- How do you feel about supporting endowments, capital campaigns, or annual galas?
- Will you only fund specific programs? Or are you more comfortable making general-operations grants?
- What are your views on collaborative funding? Public-private partnerships?
- What kind of visibility would you like? Should your entity ever give anonymously? If so, under what circumstances? Should your successors produce an annual report, maintain a website, or otherwise promote your philanthropy?
- What is your timeframe in looking for results? Are you looking for immediate payoffs, or do you prefer to invest for the long term?
- Do you have a general sense of what kind of evaluation and assessment you would like to see in your grantmaking? Or is this the kind of question that you would rather leave to your successors? If so, you may want to make that explicit.
- Do you have strong feelings about how your assets will be invested? What do you think about mission-related investing? Program-related investing?
It may be helpful to look at other organizations that you admire. How do they operate? What do they do that makes them successful? How do they measure success?
Meeting with interested parties. By its very nature, philanthropy involves other people—giving money away implies that you’re giving money away to other people. Your giving probably involves family members, professional colleagues, community leaders, and grant recipients. As you begin to define your mission, it is important to draw in those who will immediately be charged with helping you to execute your charitable giving: staff, trustees, family members. This might involve formal meetings with a facilitator, or a series of informal gatherings over a number of months. While the mission statement should ultimately reflect your values, talking with those who will carry out your intentions early on will help to ensure that they understand your mission.
Also consider sharing your mission statement with friends, colleagues, and interested parties. Ask for their comments. One philanthropist who left nine-figure wealth to a term-limited foundation did precisely that. “Once we had a document that he was comfortable with,” says the trust’s current president, “he sent it out to about two dozen people in the foundation world and the policy world. We asked for their reactions to it. People wrote long responses, sometimes several pages long. A lot of people said he should elaborate on some point, but for every person who said to elaborate, we had someone else say the material should be shortened. We incorporated some of the recommendations, but not a lot. He was persuaded by very few of them. But what the process did was give him confidence in the document we had. He found that he liked it the way it was.”
Supplementing Your Mission Statement
Some foundations have developed documents intended to assist in preserving their founder’s intentions that go well beyond a detailed mission statement. They create legacy statements, videos, and other collateral material intended to convey the character, passions, goals, and ideas of their founder to future generations.
The Daniels Fund has assets of over $1 billion derived from Bill Daniels’ pioneering work in cable television. Daniels took great interest in his philanthropy during his lifetime and even put considerable effort into memorializing his intentions. Although Daniels created specific allocations for spending in four states and the funding areas for his foundation, he did not specify grantmaking strategies. In the absence of close involvement from his board in developing specific grantmaking strategies, staff members (who did not know Daniels or share his values) began to define the foundation’s grantmaking approach.
In response, the Daniels Fund board embarked on a major five-year effort to instill Bill Daniels’ values and principles in the way the foundation conducted its business. Directors pored over their founder’s letters and writings. They carefully studied his giving history—he had made charitable gifts for 25 years prior to his death, nearly all of which were accompanied by a note explaining his purposes—and interviewed numerous associates to better understand his intentions. After careful consideration and deliberation, the directors defined grant areas, guidelines, and grantmaking parameters, all anchored in Daniels’ words and deeds. They amended the foundation’s bylaws to include these new donor-intent documents as attachments and required a 90 percent majority of the board to amend them.
The directors also assembled a wealth of supplementary material that would help to institutionalize Daniels’ intentions at his foundation as well as at the major charities that he supported. They created, for example, a searchable archive of media coverage, photos, and other documents that record their founder’s values, beliefs, and personal charitable contributions. And they created display cases and timelines that physically communicate Daniels’ values and intentions. Interactive kiosks that explain the life and principles of Bill Daniels are located in the foundation’s lobby, as well as at organizations whose histories were shaped in large part by Daniels. These items are also available to the public through the foundation’s website. The sum total of these many parts is a strong statement of its benefactor’s charitable mission.
Other foundations have created videos of their founder speaking candidly to a sympathetic interviewer about his or her values, principles, background, and vision. Legacy statements, which are simply a more comprehensive mission statement, have also been used to transmit donors’ sensibilities across time to directors, staff, and family. Such documentation helps to capture your personal history as well as the nuance and richness of your intentions. These materials can be a powerful resource for preserving your intentions.
What a Great Mission Statement Can—and Cannot—Do
Many perpetual entities have been established in the past with vague, inconsistent, or nonexistent missions. Memorializing your philanthropic intentions through a mission statement, legacy statement, and other written or video recorded directives will not absolutely safeguard your philanthropic entity from incursions against your intentions. What it will do is to give those who are committed to carrying out your philanthropic intent—whether a family member, director, court, or beneficiary—a clear statement of that intent. It will give those who are inclined to preserve and advance your purposes the opportunity to do so.
More Donor Intent Resources from The Philanthropy Roundtable
Protecting Donor Intent by Jeffrey J. Cain
- Get an electronic or print version of this practical guidebook.
- The Philanthropy Roundtable website’s special Donor Intent section where you can find our most recent articles and resources related to protecting donor intent.
Donor Intent Resource Library
- This extensive resource library will direct you to the best articles, books, and discussions on the topic of donor intent