In fall 2017, a private foundation headquartered near Philadelphia announced that it was making a significant investment in supporting seven nonprofit organizations. The recipient list included:
- An organization that helps elementary school teachers improve their literacy instruction
- A meal delivery service for people with AIDS and other critical illnesses
- A nature preserve and environmental education center
- A public radio station
A casual observer might think this foundation lacked a strategic approach. Were the applications approved on a first-come, first-served basis? Had the board of directors agreed to let each director fund their favorite charity? Upon closer observation, it became clear that the foundation was guided by a unifying theme.
The private foundation making the announcement was the Barra Foundation, established by the late Robert L. McNeil Jr., the founder of the pharmaceutical company that developed Tylenol. To reflect the spirit of the scientific method and the carefully designed experimentation that had shaped his life’s work, the focus of the Barra Foundation was defined as “innovation in and across the fields of arts and culture, education, health, and human services.” In alignment with that mission, the board of directors – a mix of family members and community leaders – had chosen to support seven organizations that were seeking to become better innovators through self-assessment and evaluation.
When viewed through the lens of the Barra Foundation’s mission, that seemingly random list of four organizations makes a lot more sense. In this case, as in many others, the mission articulates the meaning behind the charity.