OCTOBER 02, 2020

Several ingredients go into making an effective mission statement for your philanthropy: specificity, brevity, clarity, proper supporting documentation, and the input of trusted family members or colleagues, to name a few. The examples below show how two very different donors went about the process of creating mission statements that have stood the test of time.

The Lovett and Ruth Peters Foundation

Lovett Peters made his fortune in the energy industry in the mid-twentieth century. He and his wife Ruth shared the same philanthropic passion. “They believed the best legacy they could leave behind was to try and help all Americans receive a great education, especially those most in need,” says their son Dan Peters, who serves as president of the Peters Foundation.

Shortly after establishing the foundation in late 1993, Lovett sat down and produced a concise mission statement barely over a page in length that included several key provisions:

  • a requirement that the foundation sunset no more than 30 years after the death of the donors;
  • a preference for “high-risk” philanthropic gifts with the potential for strong results; and
  • a preference for supporting new up-and-coming opportunities over well-established programs.

In 2000, Ruth and Lovett amended the statement to make clear that children’s education was their first goal.

Dan Peters had the opportunity to work directly with his parents on their philanthropic priorities for over a decade before their deaths in 2009 and 2010. He emphasizes the importance of the mission statement—but also the fact that his parents got busy giving during their lifetimes, so he could see firsthand how they prioritized their philanthropy. “Giving while living helps you see the roadmap and understand the texture and intent,” he says.

The Templeton Foundation

Sir John Templeton created his foundation in 1987 but updated his charter more than a dozen times during the next two decades before stepping down as chairman in 2006. As his granddaughter Heather Templeton Dill observes, specificity was one of the areas in which he excelled. He called for seven giving areas, establishing expenditure limits for each, and included guidelines for renewal decisions on grants. “It’s really helpful that my grandfather wrote so much about what he wanted, because we have a lot of text we can refer to,” Dill says.

Specificity about the “what” of grantmaking is always helpful, but insufficient to guide a foundation in honoring donor intent across generations on its own. Far more importantly, Templeton codified the values and principles that he intended to drive his philanthropy: intellectual humility and open-mindedness, relentless curiosity, and individual and economic freedom.

Many of the big questions the Templeton Foundation is asking—Why are we here? How can we flourish? What are the fundamental structures of reality? What can we know about the nature and purposes of the divine?—stem from inquiries the founder made in his own lifetime.