Five steps to creating an effective mission statement

A mission statement helps you create a roadmap for your giving. This article explores five key steps you can take to make the process more effective.

1. Discuss your values and principles

Discussing your values helps future trustees, staff, and family know not only the “what” of your philanthropic giving but also the crucial “why.”

As she worked to recover and preserve donor intent at the Daniels Fund, Linda Childears regretted that Bill Daniels had not explained his values and beliefs in more detail for future generations to reference. Daniels had clarified his wishes—where he wanted his money to go, down to payout percentages—but he hadn’t spent much time on the principles that should govern the foundation’s grantmaking.

“When a donor says he wants to work in, say, performing arts, just knowing that is not good enough,” Childears warns. “It’s why you want us to work in performing arts. What matters to you about it? Is it the audience experience? The cultural value? What specifically about those funding areas matters to you?”

If you’re unsure how to talk about your values, you may want to consider a series of questions:

  • What are the ideas, traditions, persons, events, and circumstances that shaped you as a person? How are they reflected in the personal and professional choices you’ve made in your life?
  • What experience have you had with charitable giving, and what has given you the most satisfaction? What has disappointed you?
  • Why are you establishing a philanthropic entity now? What good are you trying to achieve? What problems do you want to address? Are you working to improve society in general, help a specific segment of the population, benefit a certain geographic area, or support a particular institution?
  • Do you want your faith to be reflected in your philanthropy? If so, how?
  • Is family involvement in your philanthropy important to you? If so, then carefully spell out who will be involved and what role(s) they will play.
  • Are there other philanthropists you admire? On what grounds?
  • Are there nonprofit leaders you admire? Why?
  • What are the biggest mistakes you see in philanthropy? How will you avoid repeating them?
  • What values do you want to form the basis for your philanthropy? What steps can you take to ensure that others understand and honor those values?
  • Are there ideas, institutions, and places that you will not support?

2. Use clear language and be specific

Clarity is crucial for a mission statement. Think about it from the perspective of readers who never knew you or your philanthropy:

  • Would they comprehend your meaning?
  • Would they have an accurate understanding of what motivates you?
  • Would they know your grantmaking priorities plus the outcomes you seek and the strategies you prefer?

For example, writing that your mission is to “help the needy” opens the door to any number of grants with which you might disagree. “Enabling the poor to support themselves with dignity through workforce training and character development” identifies both end and means. “This is an outcome at the level of the recipient, not the organization—and that makes all the difference. It focuses on the change you want to see among members of society,” says Calvin Edwards, who works with donors to formulate effective giving strategies and assess their impact.

In addition to carefully choosing your language, be specific. Specificity is one of the greatest resources for preserving donor intent through a mission statement. As Tom Riley, president of the Connelly Foundation, notes about mission statements, “The most inspiring ones can sound poetic. But they’re almost useless.” In contrast, useful mission statements are precise.

3. Make it readable, memorable, and short

“Long mission statements tend to ramble and decrease in clarity with their length,” Edwards says. “Pick your verbs carefully and avoid ‘weasel’ verbs that, it seems, every nonprofit organization in the world uses, such as ‘help, equip, empower.’ Use more precise verbs than those generic terms.” You can then supplement your statement with an addendum that contains more detail: your principles and beliefs, preferred operating principles, grantmaking guidelines, and succession directions.

4. Identify operating principles

Now that you’ve formulated a concise and strong mission statement, the next step is to create supporting documentation surrounding your statement, including the thinking and principles that will guide the operations of your charitable entity. Think through these questions:

  • Will you do all your giving in your lifetime? Assign a sunset schedule for your foundation? Plan for perpetuity?
  • Will you support direct services to individuals: scholarships, medical care, food banks, and the like? Will you fund cultural institutions like churches, schools, museums, and research organizations? Or will you effect change through advocacy, public education, policy work, publications? Are you comfortable with some mixture of these?
  • Will you support local, regional, or national organizations? Or some combination?  Will your strategies and charitable topics differ from one level to another?
  • Will you provide start-up support, or do you prefer well-established organizations?
  • Will your grantmaking involve fewer large grants or many smaller grants?
  • Will you consider multi-year grants? 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 let them manage execution themselves?
  • Will you support endowments, capital campaigns, and annual galas?
  • Will you fund only specific programs or projects? Or will you consider general operating support?
  • Will you seek collaborative funding? Public-private partnerships?
  • What kind of visibility would you like? Should your entity ever give anonymously? If so, under what circumstances? Should you (or your successors) produce an annual report, maintain a website, or otherwise promote your philanthropy?
  • What is your timeframe for achieving desired outcomes? Are you looking for immediate payoffs, or do you prefer to invest for the long term?
  • How you will use evaluation and assessment in your grantmaking?
  • With your timeframe decision in mind, what sort of spending rate do you prefer—the minimum amount required by law (5% of assets annually for private foundations) or a more aggressive approach?
  • How will your assets be invested? Will you consider mission-related investing? Program-related investing?
  • Are there types of grants that you absolutely will not make? Funding areas to be avoided? Operating procedures that are unacceptable?

5. Involve people you trust

Some donors will find it most helpful to involve others in formulating a mission statement. These trusted individuals may be family members, professional colleagues, other philanthropists, or nonprofit directors who share your values. You may also decide to bring on a consultant to help. Consider engaging potential trustees or staff members in the conversation. While the mission statement should reflect your values, talking with those who will carry out your intentions early on will help them better understand you and your donor intent.