Focused mission statements help donors decide where to direct their money

When setting up a giving plan, most individuals, families and businesses begin with two basic questions: “Where do we start?” and “To which organizations should we give?”

The answers to these two questions are essential to any strategic giving program — providing the framework for every subsequent decision a donor will make. Donors of all types and sizes — individuals, family or business foundations, or donor-advised funds — benefit greatly from taking the time to create a mission statement.

How to create a mission statement to guide your donations

When developing a mission statement, start by meeting with your internal stakeholders.

Families should include members of all adult or young-adult generations in this conversation. An outside facilitator can help family members explore and identify shared values and passions around charitable causes. When a mission statement is unilaterally drafted by one generation and imposed upon other generations, it is much less likely to remain relevant to all family members — and less likely to withstand the passage of time.

In a business situation, an experienced facilitator can work with key internal and external stakeholders — executives, employees, shareholders, vendors, customers and others — to ascertain their shared values and passions. In addition, strategic business philanthropy requires clear alignment between the company’s core business and the causes it chooses to support. A mission statement that bears little resemblance to a company’s raison d’etre is of limited value.

In drafting the mission statement, consider these questions:

  • What is our focus?
  • What do we want to preserve or change — specifically?
  • Do we want to focus on a geographic area?
  • Over what period of time will we give?
  • Do we want to collaborate with other funders – or go it alone?
  • How will we measure success?

A good mission statement

A good mission statement answers most of these questions — sending important information to potential nonprofit partners and other funders about the donor’s direction and intent.

By providing guidance to those who will follow, good mission statements also help preserve donor intent over time. Donor intent should be respected by subsequent generations – but not carved in stone. Too often, donors use inflexible mission statements in a misguided attempt to govern a foundation’s activities from the grave. In a world of constant change, this is rarely effective.

Rather, mission statements should be seen as dynamic expressions. There must be room for meaningful, ongoing engagement as time passes. Each year, they should be reviewed by leadership and re-evaluated based upon changed circumstances — both inside and outside of the family’s or business’ interests.

Here are two good examples:

  • The Smith Family Foundation’s mission is to preserve wild lands in Wyoming though the support of programs that educate about, purchase and/or defend this important resource.
  • The Jones Family Foundation supports high quality, inventive and experimental community programs that directly impact children, youth and underprivileged families in California’s Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties.

Creating clarity for beneficiaries and other donors

When shared with the nonprofit community, a mission statement helps beneficiaries immediately know whether they are a good fit for potential funding – attracting the right partners and co-funders. Everyone gains a clear understanding of the donor’s focus and can thus avoid wasting time.

In addition, a good mission statement helps donors say “no” to well-intentioned fund requesters — especially among friends. It is much easier when you can say, “I’m sorry, here’s our mission statement. Unfortunately, your worthy cause does not fall within our closely defined focus.”

Most significantly, a good mission statement helps donors focus their philanthropic efforts — avoiding the “peanut butter approach” where gifts are spread thinly over a wide area. As our regular readers know, we counsel donors to “go deep, not wide.” A tightly crafted mission statement is an important step toward achieving that goal.

Creation of a good mission statement is a worthwhile endeavor. It involves and educates current and future stakeholders, enforces focus, clarifies decision-making, and provides valuable information to nonprofits and other donors alike.