How to create and make the most out of our foundation’s mission statement?

We have received inquiries from many family foundations who are trying to craft a mission statement for the first time or are re-imagining their current mission. This Ask the Center is excerpted from a 2007 piece written by Kevin Laskowksi “Where We Go From 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, 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.

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.
  • Consider 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. Engage others in your mission via Twitter and other social media channels. 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.