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 educational center and a public radio station. A casual observer might think this foundation was rudderless, drifting around without a strategic purpose. Were the applications approved on a first-come, first-served basis? Had the board of directors agreed to let each director fund his or her favorite charity? Or was there a unifying theme to the seemingly haphazard list?
The private foundation making the announcement was the Barra Foundation, which was 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 seven 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 are more frequently 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 for your efforts can make the process more meaningful and satisfying.
For example, the Couch Family Foundation 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. “Our conversations have dramatically changed from being focused on grantmaking to now being focused on performance,” reports foundation Trustee Barbara Couch. “These more recent conversations are more robust, engaging and rewarding for all.”
Second, a formal mission statement helps to create and sustain a legacy. People can be deeply charitable by supporting causes they are passionate about, but “being charitable” or “giving back” 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 increases public awareness of your activities and defines giving parameters. An external statement – whether published on a website and other marketing materials 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.