Articulating the Foundation's Mission

A mission statement gives all who are interested an idea of why the foundation was established and how it defines its own work. The statement is usually broad, worded to reflect the donor’s intent and give a flavor of the foundation’s values and interests. For family foundation trustees, developing a mission statement is a means of honoring donor intent and giving an identity, set in the context of family and the outside world, to the foundation.

Developing Mission Statements

Mission statements articulate the foundation’s goals and give an overall focus to its work. In the 1994 annual report of the Commonwealth Fund, foundation President Margaret Mahoney says that developing such a statement “is not an idle exercise or a one-time event, but an essential step in exercising the board’s policy role on finances and program, and a main guidepost in exercising oversight.” A good mission statement takes into consideration the family’s shared values, its legacy of giving, and the current and future needs of the community.

Established in 1959, the Harry A. and Margaret D. Towsley Foundation of Midland, Michigan, has a mission that is as relevant today as it was the day the organization came into being. Foundation president and daughter of the founder Margaret Ann Riecker says that the values and interests of her family defined the foundation when it was set up by her mother. Riecker was one of five daughters of harry and Margaret Towsley. Her father was a professor of pediatrics; her mother started a nursery school that operated until a few years ago. When the foundation was established, legal documents defined its purposes in general germs; it was family members who carefully crafted its mission to reflect their interests and the needs of the community. Broadly stated, the Towsley Foundation’s mission is to fund programs that support children, health care, education or a combination of the three. Two years after the founder’s death, foundation trustees decided that it was time to review its accomplishments and talk about future directions. They chose to undertake this effort at a family retreat. At that retreat, trustees reaffirmed the foundation’s original mission statement. Riecker comments:

"I think it is a mistake when people say that donors are lost in time. Over the thirty years I served on the foundation board with my mother, I saw her change her approach to existing issues. Times may change, but a lot of problems stay the same."

Younger trustees on the Towsley board are bringing new interests to the board, support for the arts, for example. So far, the foundation’s mission statement has easily accommodated those interests.

A few years ago, the Council of Michigan Foundations conducted a nationwide survey of a group of relatively large family foundations. Of the respondents, about 85 percent had mission statements and all had funding criteria or program areas on which they focused. The number of small foundations who lack mission statements is, however, much greater. For boards of these foundations, the challenge is to articulate the donor’s intent, review the charitable giving practices of the foundation and extrapolate themes and patterns of giving. Current social issues and problems can also be assessed as the mission statement is developed.

Missions evolve over time, and some mission statements require revision as circumstances—either family or community related—change. Every board should revisit its mission statement on an annual basis to determine whether it remains relevant, viable, and appropriate.