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 and a meal delivery service for people with AIDS and other critical illnesses.
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 non-financial 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 their 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.