Missions create focus, whether they are for organizations, individuals, or families or soldiers. They identify an objective, a goal or a target to shoot for. And sometimes missions need to be dusted off and modified to ensure that they are still relevant – to make sure everyone is headed in the same direction and understands where they’re going. Things change. We make progress. Sometimes we need to adjust to changing conditions so we remain relevant and strong. Often these adjustment are just strategic shifts. In some cases though, these shifts over time begin to blur the relevance of the mission.
We often think of this in the case of companies or nonprofits, but it’s also true in our giving.
For example, I recently met a woman named Susan who, after learning about my work as a philanthropy advisor, asked if she could speak with me about a challenge her family faced. She explained that her father set up a foundation during his lifetime and had recently died. The mission of the foundation was to support families living in poverty within the county where they lived in California. The father had created significant wealth in agriculture, so he chose to focus the foundation’s giving on providing healthy food options for those living below the poverty line in the county where he farmed.
This woman has two other siblings, and none of them had been involved in the foundation. As with many families, things were not straightforward. While they all loved their father, the relationships with his two sons were strained at times. So the daughter, who was also involved in the nonprofit sector, had the closest relationship with the father among the siblings. She became the Trustee of the Foundation upon her father’s death.
“I want to carry on the focus my father established,” explained Susan. “I am the trustee of the foundation, but neither of my brothers are really interested in what my father chose to focus on. They each have their own causes they care about in the community, and they have never really been invested in the foundation my dad set up.”
As I asked additional questions, it became clear that while her father cared deeply about the cause he dedicated the foundation to, he also cared deeply for his family. And in the last several months of his life, he expressed sadness to his daughter that his children were not involved in the foundation together.
“What do you think your father would find more appealing: continuing to support the causes he cared about without involvement from his kids or finding ways to do both?” I asked.
“How would we do that?” she asked.
Earlier in the conversation she mentioned the specific areas that each of her siblings cared about. It turned out that they all cared deeply for different issues within the community where they were raised. I suggested that by broadening the focus of the foundation’s mission, they could establish four different funding areas: food, education, advocacy and arts (the different areas of interest among her family). What initially seemed like disparate interests became a powerful way to promote building healthy communities in an area they all cared for deeply.
Several weeks after we met, Susan called me and explained with excitement that her brothers loved the idea. “I guess I never questioned the mission of my dad’s giving” Susan confided. “And I never thought we had the flexibility to change the mission. Now that we have, I know my dad would love what we’re doing. We are carrying out his wishes – and doing it as a family. I only wish he were still around to see it.”
Is your mission statement limiting your organization or missing the opportunity to engage a broader audience? If so, don’t forget that in most cases you have the power to change it. You can start by asking questions like: “Is the mission relevant? And are there ways that make sense to shift the mission to enhance the impact or level of engagement?”
Even if the mission is fine the way it is, you have tested it. And if you decide to adjust the mission, you might be amazed with the results.