Why you can’t afford to ignore a mission statement

A strong, well-crafted mission statement is the first step to safeguarding your intent. “It all starts there,” says philanthropic consultant Calvin Edwards.

The importance of a mission statement holds true regardless of your philanthropic timespan—whether you plan to spend all funds during your lifetime, sunset your foundation, or establish an entity in perpetuity. A mission statement is especially crucial if you plan to extend your giving beyond your lifetime. It helps your future trustees and heirs answer this fundamental question: What would our founder have done in these circumstances? When you’re not there to answer the question in person, a mission statement does your talking for you.

Create a mission statement for the future, but also for the now

A powerful mission statement reinforces donor intent both now and in the future. But it also improves your philanthropic giving in many other ways by:

  • Underpinning the critical decisions you make around the governance and operations of your philanthropy.
  • Producing greater focus and clarity by helping you discern what’s central and what’s peripheral to your giving plans.
  • Encouraging deliberate and thoughtful philanthropy by enabling you to define the geographic boundaries of your generosity, identify board members committed to your objectives, decide whether to involve family members, explain to grantseekers what you will and will not fund, and decline off-mission funding requests.

Mission statements take time

Landing on the best wording for your mission statement can be a long process, but it’s well worth the time. Some philanthropists arrive at a mission statement through a trial-and-error approach, learning from past mistakes. Others know exactly what they want to accomplish up front. Regardless of your approach, defining a mission is a deliberative process that often requires multiple revisions.

Mission statements are important for ideological giving

Devoting as much attention as necessary to this task is particularly crucial if your philanthropy encompasses conservative or libertarian causes, such as fostering free markets, individual liberty, and traditional American values.

“It’s vitally important that such donors specify a mission for their foundations that tells trustees, staff, and successor trustees what they want done with their money. If that’s not done, their foundations will become liberal organizations,” says Jim Piereson, current president of the William E. Simon Foundation and former executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation.

Mission statements are central, but they are not everything

By their very nature, the power of mission statements is limited. Even if you supplement your statement with legacy documents, videos, and other supporting materials, you cannot guarantee that your donor intent will be honored. These items may put guardrails around donor intent, but the charitable vehicle can still crash. Getting the “people part” of the equation right is imperative.

“I often say our Searle board meetings are more like séances—we’re always asking what Dan [Searle] would have done,” says Kim Dennis, president of the Searle Freedom Trust. “Even though we have this great mission statement, it’s less the mission statement that controls us than actually sitting there and remembering Dan, knowing what he would have done. In the end, no document will protect you from people who want to pursue their own ends.”

The most important function of a mission statement is assisting those who come after you—whether family members, directors, a court, or beneficiaries—to understand your goals. You must still have successors who desire to carry out your wishes. Remember the other planks of donor intent: The timeframe of your philanthropy, the philanthropic vehicle you choose, the governance structure you establish, and—of course—the individuals you bring on board.