How Dan Searle protected his donor intent with a mission statement

Dan Searle understood the value of a strong mission statement, one that conveyed not only his philanthropic goals but the values and philosophy behind his intent. Searle’s story is also important because it shows that when trustees and staff work alongside a donor, they develop a much more nuanced understanding of the individual’s motivation, core values, and problem-solving strategies.

Searle’s giving initially focused on supporting local Chicago-area institutions—such as the Art Institute, Northwestern University, and the Botanic Garden. But beginning in the mid-1990s, Searle decided to reinvent his philanthropy, creating the Searle Freedom Trust to focus exclusively on advancing liberty.

Well aware of the proclivity of philanthropies to veer off course over time, Searle employed Kim Dennis (who served as president of The Philanthropy Roundtable from 1991 to 1996) to help him craft a mission statement defining his donor intent. That inaugurated a six-month-long process of back-and-forth between them.

Here are the steps they took:

  • Searle asked Dennis to collect mission statements from other foundations that had successfully preserved donor intent, such as the Bradley Foundation.
  • To illustrate his philosophy and outlook, he shared with Dennis books he admired and clippings from The Wall Street Journal and other publications that resonated with him.
  • To hone his new foundation’s focus areas, Searle talked extensively with Dennis, and the two of them met with representatives from freedom-advocating think tanks (such as the American Enterprise Institute) and other institutions to garner their input as well.
  • Dennis developed a first draft, further refined by Searle over several months.

“By the end of the process,” Dennis says, “there wasn’t a single word in there that wasn’t intentional. It’s only a six-page document, but every word was there because Dan wanted it there. We had long discussions over whether we should use the word freedom or liberty, over whether America is a democracy or a democratic republic. Once he finished it, he never made a change to it.” 

Aside from canonizing Searle’s donor intent in written form, the mission statement served another crucial function: teaching Dennis a great deal about Searle’s thought processes. That was a critical factor in maintaining donor intent after he passed away in 2007 and Dennis became president of the trust.