Mission in Three Steps
1. Look Back
Successful philanthropists understand the “why” – or the motivational values – behind their giving.1 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 have you 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 purpose of the Couch Family Foundation (included nearby) 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.