Four Elements of Effective Mission Statements

Jul 5, 2022

One advantage private foundations have over other forms of philanthropy is their longevity. A foundation can extend a donor’s generosity over many years, potentially even after he or she has passed away. However, longevity can bring with it added complication, particularly with regards to an organization’s philanthropic mission.

How can a foundation prevent mission drift and respect its donor’s original intent, especially over the long-term? The answer lies in establishing a strong mission statement that defines what your organization stands for and the purpose of its support.

A mission statement should help foundations:

  • Clarify its reason for existing – why was the foundation established? This can include the principles and beliefs that direct how the foundation’s giving will occur.
  • Identify its purpose – indicate which areas of philanthropy an organization will focus on and establish a commitment to use its assets to benefit the communities it will serve.
  • Operate efficiently – a guidepost to help board members determine which grant requests they will accept and which ones remain outside their scope.
  • Promote inclusion – by communicating a foundation’s purpose, a mission statement gives others (i.e., family, friends, or prospective board members) the opportunity to join in the organization’s goals.

Manning & Napier has worked with non-profits since the 1970s, throughout this time we have seen many different types of mission statements. There is no “right” way to define a mission, but we can highlight a few characteristics effective mission statements seem to have in common. Consider the following with regards to your foundation’s mission statement.

Is it clear and concise?

There’s a certain effectiveness in crafting a simple statement that neatly sums up your organization’s mission. Defining your mission too broadly undermines its utility as a guiding document. Too much description and length can weigh on its usefulness as well. An effective mission statement will find the right balance.

Do you have a strategy?

Before finalizing a mission statement you might consider not only what you want to accomplish but how. For most foundations this might include something about how grant making or other support will occur. Will you serve a specific geographic area? Do you prefer a few larger grants or many smaller grants? Will you try to achieve your goals over a specific time period? Consider how your goals might be achieved and determine what merits inclusion.

Is it distinct?

The most memorable statements we have come across are those that capture the unique aspect of each foundation and perfectly sum up what an organization is all about. Your mission statement is your chance to communicate what makes your foundation different. Items to consider include the origins of the foundation, why your mission is important to the donor or the community that you serve, and what circumstances exist that require this philanthropy.

Is it flexible?

A mission statement should guide your organization over the long-term. However, circumstances can change over time. A foundation’s mission must find the proper balance between being current and honoring the intent of its original donors.

Questions to consider include asking what parts of your mission should remain constant over time, and what parts might be more flexible. What if, over time, opportunities for philanthropy change in terms of either need or priority? How might your foundation cope with such a change? You should consider how your mission can be achieved over the long-term, and build in enough flexibility to adjust to changing circumstances.

Formalizing your foundation’s goals and values into a mission statement is not quick work, but it can go a long way toward helping create a lasting legacy.

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