Finding True North: Defining Charitable Mission to Guide Your Philanthropy

August 29, 2023
We review why a charitable mission is important and provide guidance on how to approach crafting a mission statement that enables you to take philanthropy beyond just “being charitable” or “giving back.”

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.

What Is a Charitable Mission?

Simply put, a charitable mission is the reason for your philanthropic activity, whether that activity consists of making financial contributions or providing nonfinancial resources such as your knowledge, network, or time spent volunteering. What is the need in the world that your activity is seeking to meet?

It should be noted that some philanthropists and nonprofit boards prefer to articulate a separate “vision” statement that acts as the North Star. In that case, the “mission” would describe the work you are doing and the strategy you are pursuing, and the “vision” would be the future state that would exist if you succeeded at your mission. However, the two terms frequently are used interchangeably.

Why Have a Charitable Mission?

A charitable mission statement is not a requirement, of course. Plenty of philanthropists, private foundations, and donor-advised funds operate successfully without a broader declaration of purpose. However, there are several important benefits to creating a charitable mission statement that are worth considering.


First, articulating a mission creates an intentional expression of your values. As with any goal-setting exercise, having a focus on your efforts can make the process more meaningful and satisfying.

For example, one family foundation that we work with was formed in 2001 and initially made a broad range of grants in education and health. Some years later, the board sought to become more proactive, intentional, and purposeful in its grantmaking and refined the mission to focus on early childhood education. The board now spends the majority of its time reviewing its strategies and their impact.

Second, a formal mission statement helps create and sustain a lasting legacy. People can be deeply charitable by supporting causes they are passionate about, but this type of general charitable intent is more susceptible to dissipation or reinterpretation than a carefully crafted statement of purpose.

Consider the case of Catherine and John MacArthur. Few Americans today would recall that they had built a successful insurance company together or that they had supported a variety of charities in Chicago and Palm Beach, Florida, during their lifetimes. Many more people are familiar with the MacArthur “genius” grants awarded by the foundation that bears their name and has the distinctive mission of “supporting creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks.”

Third, a charitable mission helps define grantmaking giving parameters and may increase public awareness of your activities. An external statement – whether published on a website or simply noted on your foundation’s tax filings – can increase awareness among other funders and can help the right grant applicants find you (perhaps improving the quality of the requests you receive). It can also provide an easy way to say “no” to unrelated requests that you are not inclined to fund, including those from friends and family.

Finally, many philanthropic individuals report that defining and acting in alignment with a charitable mission increases impact. As in the for-profit business world, a mission statement can be used to set short-, mid-, and long-term goals and to formulate a strategic plan that will guide your current activities. Progress can be measured, and the strategy refined. Over time, your charitable activities are likely to generate greater impact if they are designed and deployed in alignment with your mission.

[A]rticulating a mission creates an intentional expression of your values. As with any goal-setting exercise, having a focus for your efforts can make the process more meaningful and satisfying. 

Preparing to Create a Mission

If you have decided to craft a mission to guide your charitable activities, consider these preliminary questions:

What is the purpose?

Which of the mentioned benefits is most compelling to you? If you are creating a mission statement primarily to guide your own lifetime giving, your process and the audience will be very different from those of someone who is creating a mission statement to help her children figure out what grants to make.

Who should be involved?

You can certainly write a mission statement by yourself – in fact, many donors do. However, in that case, it is important to understand that the next set of leaders may never feel ownership, and they may feel more tempted to change the mission when they assume control. Thus, many individuals choose to take a different approach and pitch a big tent and engage the next generation.

In their book, “Generation Impact: How Next Gen Donors Are Revolutionizing Giving,” Sharna Goldseker and Michael Moody observe that multigenerational teams are becoming the new norm: “People are living longer, with multiple generations of adults active at once. Family funds and foundations today can involve as many as four generations.”

If you want your children or others to help guide your giving, consider engaging them in crafting the mission. If part of the reason you established a foundation is to create a project that will bring together your family or to provide an educational training ground for your grandchildren, consider the enormous potential inherent in creating a mission statement together.

How long will this process take?

Acknowledge the length of the process. Creating a charitable mission is a multipart process. It is unlikely that you will have a completed mission after one conversation, so create meaningful time and space to focus on the project without other distractions.

Once you have answered these preliminary questions, you can dive into the process of creating your mission. Although it involves an investment of time, articulating the meaning behind your charity can result in greater impact over the long run and ensure that your efforts are moving you closer to your North Star.

Mission in Three Steps

1. Look Back

Successful philanthropists understand the “why” – or the motivational values  – behind their giving. Values – or what is most important – often have deep roots  that trace back to childhood, including memories of people and events from our early years. To determine how to move forward with your philanthropic mission, it is important to first look back and understand why you give.

The formative experiences of early life often inform charitable intent. For example, one client, a first-generation American, benefited from a full scholarship to college, which led her to a successful and lucrative career. Her giving centers on access to education, and she started a scholarship fund at her alma mater that she and her family continue to fund each year. While growing up, her children heard many stories about the sacrifices their mother made to secure her education, including a colorful array of part-time jobs to pay for her living expenses while at school. Education always came first in their home. As a result, the second generation focuses on education funding as part of the family’s philanthropic mission, even though they did not directly experience the same financial struggles that their mother did.

The experiences that drive mission do not always come from early life; they can also derive from life-changing experiences later in adulthood, such as having a child with a health issue or exposure to a foreign country. Start discovering your own stories and the resulting philanthropic values by answering some of the following questions:

  • Why is it important to you to give? What has inspired you? Think of specific moments, stories, and memories that help you describe your philanthropic motivation.
  • What is the most satisfying gift you have ever made? It does not have to be a charitable gift or a gift of money. What about the outcome made you feel good?
  • What is the most important gift that you have received? What impact did it have on your life?

2. Look Forward

Once you have articulated why it is important for you to give, the next step is to consider how your philanthropy can be impactful for others. How does your purpose align with a positive change you want to make in the world? While a separate vision statement is not always necessary, articulating a vision of success can be helpful in focusing your mission. In other words, when you achieve the desired impact, what would have changed?

If the mission is too expansive, it will not provide sufficient direction for giving. Many foundations, even very large ones, often seek to narrow their focus to increase their impact. Mission sometimes starts with a particular social issue, a place, or a population in need, and then is further refined or limited by other criteria. For example, an issue-based mission might focus on environmental conservation, which then would further prioritize a specific region – or even a specific body of water or variety of tree.

A place-based or geographic focus generally prioritizes improving a city, region, or community, and possibly includes multiple facets of the targeted community. For example, the Frey Foundation, a substantial multigenerational foundation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, prioritizes “investing collaboratively in West Michigan to create a better place to live by strengthening its communities, protecting its natural environment, enhancing the arts, and transforming the lives of individuals and families.” In this foundation’s grantmaking, one would expect Western Michigan to be a prerequisite for every grant, even while benefiting multiple social issues and individuals throughout the region. The Frey Foundation mission narrows its grantmaking to specific issues of interest in Western Michigan.

Start with what resonates most with you and your family: an issue, place, or population. Then, use the other categories to further refine your objectives. For example, the mission of one family foundation that we work with is to create opportunities for children and families – a wonderful people-focused mission, but too big to accomplish without further refinement. The second sentence of the mission defines where: the Upper Valley Region of New Hampshire and Vermont. Reducing the geographic reach of the mission makes it more viable for a family foundation to tackle. The final sentence gives the foundation a more specific focus on early childhood development without prohibiting grants benefiting children and families outside that space.

Example Family Foundation Mission

The mission of our family foundation is to create quality opportunities for children and families to learn and thrive so that they develop healthy, fulfilling lives. Our family foundation partners with organizations serving the Upper Valley Region of New Hampshire and Vermont. Our strategic priority area is early childhood development.

3. Write It Down

As a result of the time and reflection dedicated to the first two steps, a few clear ideas should be taking shape. Putting pen to paper can be daunting, but it is important to capture your thinking so it can be revisited and revised as you find the right words and make refinements.

Best practices for drafting a charitable mission statement:

  • Keep it big enough. Your mission is not a strategic plan, so think big. The first sentence of your mission can state your overarching purpose (e.g., “Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.").
  • Keep it small enough. No philanthropist or foundation can meet every need. Make the mission narrow enough so that it is actionable and guides your giving. Often, the second sentence of the mission statement refines the overarching purpose stated in the first sentence (e.g., “charity: water is a non-profit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries. We inspire giving and empower others to fundraise for sustainable water solutions. We use local partners on the ground to build and implement the projects. Then, we prove every single project funded, using GPS coordinates, photos, and stories from the field.").
  • Make it short. Some of the most effective mission statements are less than a paragraph. You should be able to create a meaningful mission statement in two to five sentences. If you are having difficulty narrowing it down, refer to existing mission statements for inspiration. Frequently, the hard work of revising a big thought into a short statement can help you pare away the distractions to arrive at the essential heart of your mission.
  • Be positive. By focusing on the positive impact, effective mission statements can be motivational and inspire others to get involved. Rather than “preventing the ravages of global warming,” perhaps a way to engage others in your passion for the mission would be to say: “preserving and protecting a vibrant and healthy Earth for everyone.”

Want to get started creating your charitable mission?

BBH has helped countless families with their philanthropic interests. Our Building Your Charitable Mission Statement worksheet offers a step-by-step guide to creating a mission that reflects your values.

To learn more about the tools and resources available, contact a BBH relationship manager or the Philanthropic Advisory team.

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