Creating a Mission Statement to Preserve a Philanthropic Vision

With a clear and effective mission statement, a foundation can enact its vision and preserve the intent of its founding philanthropist. A mission clarifies for a foundation’s board of directors and its staff the purpose of the foundation, helps potential grant applicants understand the organization’s reason for being, and increases public transparency.

A clear mission statement is especially useful for preserving donor intent at a family foundation. Without a mission statement and other documents, contradictory views from children regarding their parents’ intent are common. “Dad told me that we should focus our grantmaking on our home community where the wealth was created,” asserts the son. “Dad told me that he was most interested in entrepreneurship and that we should work to develop systems to support entrepreneurs,” says the daughter. These disputes grow as the intergenerational distance between donor and heirs increases.

Preserving donor intent in the development of a foundation’s mission statement should be the first task. It can always be revised later, as the donor refines his or her philanthropic interests. But failure to start early increases the odds that the donor’s goals will be lost over time.

The purpose of a foundation should be the core of its mission statement. This should be neither too general, nor too specific. “To improve humanity” gives little direction to future leaders and staff. On the other hand, “to support children’s soccer programs in Akron” is too specific, because a decade hence that goal may be irrelevant. A good statement of purpose should be able to stand at least a generation or two. The foundation board can then adapt strategies for accomplishing the purpose to changing conditions and earlier lessons learned.

Foundations can create mission statements in a number of different ways. Many hold board retreats, during which leaders spend time with a facilitator. Facilitators keep the conversation on track and ensure that all participants get to speak, and help participants learn from and inspire each other. Retreats are not always effective, though, if louder or more strident voices are allowed to carry the day. And scheduling busy board members to devote a day or more to meeting off site can be difficult.

Some foundations delegate the development of a mission statement to a “writing committee” to avoid a retreat. This committee develops a draft then presents it for consideration by the board. The success of this option depends entirely on the strength of the committee members. The board members with the time and interest to work on a mission statement may or may not be the ones best suited for the assignment.

In a third method, an experienced philanthropy adviser interviews board members one by one, discussing the values and traditions of the donor, and the board member’s hopes for the future of the foundation. After the interviews, the adviser drafts a proposed mission statement for consideration by the board. Unlike in a retreat, the board does not come together to share stories and learn from each other, but this method can have balancing advantages.

Mission statements are a fundamental building block of a foundation’s work, so deserve attention. Because of the importance of crystalizing the donor’s goals, the process of developing a mission statement for a family foundation should differ from the process used for other nonprofits. There are many techniques available to accomplish this, and a board of directors should consider the benefits of each process before engaging in this fundamentally important exercise.

Mark Neithercut is founder of Neithercut Philanthropy Advisors in Detroit. He formerly served at the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and the Kresge Foundation.

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