Where Do We Go Fom Here: Crafting a Family Mission Statement

`Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ [asked Alice].
`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ [said the Cat].
`I don’t much care where,’ [said Alice].
`Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.’ [said the Cat].

— Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Unlike the intrepid Alice in Wonderland, today’s giving families care very much about where their philanthropic adventures take them and their communities. This is where mission statements, short descriptions of why an organization exists and what causes it will support, can prove eminently useful. Whether it’s a crisp declaration of a family’s shared values or a succinct manifesto for social change, a well written mission statement goes a long way to providing the kind of clarity of vision your giving family needs to be effective—regardless of the chosen philanthropic vehicle. This article explores mission statements—why families have them, how to create them, and how families re-examine them to focus, fortify and fulfill their philanthropic promise.

Why a Mission Statement?

There is a fair and sometimes justified bit of cynicism surrounding mission statements. Consider this corporate Mission Statement Generator from the minds that brought you Dilbert: “Our goal is to conveniently pursue multimedia based solutions in order to collaboratively foster professional leadership skills while maintaining the highest standards.”

We see buzzword-laden mission statements on office posters and web sites, and understand that having a mission statement is just part of being a bona fide philanthropic organization. It may or may not truly inspire. It may or may not tell us much about the organization’s goals and vision. It may or may not have much to do with the organization’s actual concerns and activity. We do know that having one is nonetheless important. Given this situation, when beginning a new philanthropic adventure, families might be tempted to go without a mission statement, and simply get down to the business of doing good.

In fact, among the thirty multi-generational family foundations in the National Center’s landmark study Generations of Giving, only six had a specific mission statement at their founding. This situation, however, had changed by the time the foundations were surveyed. Currently, seventeen of the foundations have a specific mission statement, and another eight have a general or implicit mission statement:

Mission Statements in Family Foundations

At Founding

None: 18
General/Implicit: 6
Specific: 6


None: 5
General/Implicit: 8
Specific: 17

Source: Kelin E. Gersick, et al., Generations of Giving: Leadership and Continuity in Family Foundations (Washington, DC: National Center for Family Philanthropy, 2004), p. 187.

Giving families come to recognize that a mission statement can and should be more than simply rhetoric. According to the researchers, “a clear current mission is the single best predictor of most of the other performance variables as rated by the research team.” Mission clarity correlates with a clearer program, more grantmaking vitality, better successor development, quality control, organizational structure. Moreover, it’s especially helpful for families as it contributes with better family collaboration, greater likelihood of continuity, more next generation enthusiasm, and a positive family dynamic.

A mission statement can give your family a shared clarity of purpose that transcends generations. It identifies funding gaps family giving can fill, enabling your program to be more strategic. It ensures family members are in sync with one another and establishes the family’s identity in the public imagination. If your organization cares where it’s headed, it makes good sense to declare it.

How to Create a Mission Statement

The researchers in Generations of Giving drew an important distinction between having a mission statement and mission clarity. You’ll notice above that it is mission clarity—and not the mission statement alone—that predicts other types of philanthropic performance. Although the statement itself certainly helps, mission clarity is more about how that mission statement is developed and shared, whether or not the statement represents shared family understanding and activity. The process by which a mission statement is created then becomes as important as the statement of purpose that emerges. Keep the following tips in mind when looking to create your mission statement:

Hold a special meeting. Take time out to discuss the “big picture.” Reviewing grant proposals and discussing the overall purpose of the family philanthropy are two different types of considerations. Give each the appropriate amount of thought and discussion.

Consider using a facilitator. A facilitator, whether he or she is a close trusted colleague or a trained philanthropy consultant, can be invaluable in an important discussion such as this. Consider bringing someone in to organize and move the discussion forward, leaving interested family members to voice their thoughts and concerns without having to worry about the specifics of the ultimate product.

Take your time. Remember that most foundations start without a mission statement. You have time to let the mission, the cause or set of causes in which your family is truly engaged, emerge in the family consciousness.

Don’t try to write the statement all at once. In Voyage of Discovery, foundation consultant Judy Healey recommends organizing the sense of the mission statement at your meeting, and then assigning a point person to draft a statement for review. While some families could conceivably knock out a dynamite mission statement in an afternoon, others may find family members haggling over different words. If necessary, save that discussion for another time.

Look to the family’s dynamic. As it is said, “If you’ve met one giving family, you’ve met one giving family.” Anticipate how your family might react to this kind of discussion, and be prepared to accommodate and to step in where appropriate. This is another reason to consider a trained facilitator, so no one family member is forced to referee a dispute.

Get everyone involved. Consider inviting staff, close friends and/or colleagues. While only one or a few people should be involved in the actual drafting, as many family members as possible should have a voice in the discussion. This increases the chances that the mission will resonate with family members and encourage more frequent and intense participation.

Make sure the mission reflects as much as possible the common interests of the family. If the mission statement represents only the most vocal or passionate members, only the most vocal and passionate will be prepared to work toward it. If the mission represents everyone in some way, everyone will have their own take on the family enterprise. As much as possible, work to convey in a simple statement what brings you together as a family.

Be as specific as possible. It’s much easier to broaden a mission later to welcome new family member interests and community needs than it is to narrow one’s mission and say goodbye to a cherished initiative.

“Go public.” Mission statements are not only for office walls. Along with appropriate guidelines, your mission statement establishes your giving program’s identity in the public imagination. Display your mission statement on your philanthropy’s web site. Discuss what the mission means to you and your family with potential grantees and with the community, and how certain initiatives might work in the service of your mission.

Don’t forget about it. Avoid mission drift by consistently referencing the place of the mission in your philanthropic work. The mission statement can symbolize a great deal more than a page on your philanthropy’s web site. It can be a unifying and energizing force for your giving and your family. It can be a valuable compass if you’re willing to let it lead you.

Revisiting the Mission

A good mission statement represents as much as possible the common interests of the family. Of course, giving families and the communities in which they give change, and you might find that your mission no longer represents what the philanthropy does or is looking to do. New board members, fund advisors, and staff may bring new perspectives to your philanthropy. Family members may be geographically dispersed, putting a strain on a mission with a geographic focus. Your philanthropy may reap an unexpected windfall or see less than expected investment returns. A new cause or interest may have emerged. Perhaps community needs have changed. When any of these events occur, it may be a good time to revisit the mission, to see if it still resonates with the family’s interests.

The process for revisiting a mission statement is the same as creating one—except this time, you already have a working draft. Call a separate meeting to discuss how the family, the philanthropy, and the communities in which you give have changed since the statement was originally written. Discuss how the mission might change with them. Mission statements aren’t usually written in stone. Feel free to elaborate, reinterpret, and even radically alter your mission statement. Work to craft a mission that’s built to last but not afraid of change.

On a Mission

Alice’s exchange with the Cheshire cat doesn’t end with “It doesn’t matter.” The cat soon explains the consequences of taking any which way:

`Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
`–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.
`Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, `if you only walk long enough.’

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Nearly 34,000 family foundations gave away more than $14 billion in 2005. Add to that the remarkable giving done by families through innumerable donor-advised funds, giving circles, and direct gifts. Giving families certainly get somewhere with their dollars; a tremendous amount of good is done every day. But giving families each have a specific somewhere or somewhere’s they wish to reach and would like to see it sooner rather than later. Consider how creating a shared mission statement or revisiting your existing mission might clarify and revitalize your giving program’s purpose. Unlike Alice, today’s giving families care very much about where their philanthropic adventures take them and their communities. It makes sense to say so.

Resources for Getting Started

To help you craft your mission statement, NCFP offers a number of resources:


Below are a few examples of mission statements taken from Splendid Legacy 2. Contact NCFP at 202.293.3424 for additional suggestions.

“The Foundation is dedicated to helping create and sustain a vibrant and healthy community where all Silicon Valley residents have equal opportunity to live, work and be enriched. To accomplish its purpose, the Foundation invests in strong community-based organizations that promote self-reliance and economic independence, and positively contribute to the quality of life for economically, physically and emotionally challenged individuals.”

—Sobrato Family Foundation

“The mission of the McCune Foundation is to enable communities and nonprofit institutions to improve the quality and circumstances of life for present and future generations. In meeting these challenges, the Foundation employs flexible approaches and innovative strategies that are responsive to changing needs and new opportunities. The goal is to stimulate long-lasting and sustainable progress which contributes to community vitality and economic growth.”

—McCune Foundation

“…the mission of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is to support efforts that promote a just, equitable and sustainable society.”

—Charles Stewart Mott Foundation

“The mission of the Kennedy Foundation is to provide leadership in the field of mental retardation and service to persons with mental retardation, both those born and unborn, and their families.”

—Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation