January 15, 2016

Identify Your Values and Beliefs

This article is part of a toolkit on how to get more serious about your philanthropy. For an introduction, see Finding Your Philanthropy Compass. For other sections, see the bottom of the page.

Consider the experience of Steven Hilton. Having risen through the ranks of the foundation started by his grandfather Conrad N. Hilton to become its president and CEO, Steve was faced with the challenge of interpreting his grandfather’s philanthropic intent for the present day. Fortunately, Conrad—founder of the hotel chain that bears his surname—had the foresight to leave clear but flexible guidelines. Written more than 30 years prior, Hilton's will advised his heirs to “relieve the suffering, the distressed, and the destitute” and to never allow people “abandoned to wander alone in poverty and darkness.” Today, the Hilton Foundation honors those words by investing in a host of causes, all focused on “improving the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people throughout the world.” (To read more about Conrad Hilton’s legacy, see “The Hilton Foundation Sees a Need—and Finds a Partner.”)

Like Conrad Hilton, savvy philanthropists don’t just tell others about what matters to them, they also capture these ideas by writing them down. Writing down what you care about and why—and how your values and beliefs will help you make funding decisions—is important for two reasons. First, establishing some guardrails up front will help you respond to what may soon feel like an endless number of requests for funds. Without them, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the number and type of opportunities to do some good, and it may become hard to say no to potential grant recipients. Second, clearly articulating your values and beliefs will also help everyone else who has a stake in making decisions on your behalf—now and potentially long into the future.

Savvy philanthropists don’t just tell others about what matters to them, they also capture these ideas by writing them down.

That clear articulation is crucial: If such statements of intent are unclear, they can leave confusion in the benefactor’s wake. Recall the case of Leona Helmsley, who left more than $5 billion to her charitable trust, accompanied by multiple, unclear “mission statements” on how to spend that money. Confusion and disagreement over Helmsley’s intent landed her trustees in court to seek guidance on how to spend the fortune. (For more on the case of Leona Helmsley, visit the Philanthropy Roundtable’s article here.)

How to communicate your values and beliefs

There is no single right way to communicate your philanthropic values and beliefs, but you may find these two common devices helpful:

  • A mission statement is a statement of the overall values that guide your giving. Mission statements are typically short (as short as a sentence, or a single paragraph), and provide a useful overview lens through which to consider decisions.
  • A statement of donor intent or philanthropic purpose, typically longer than a mission statement, adds color and detail to your organization’s mission. In the words of The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI), a leading philanthropy advisory, a statement of donor intent is “a recording created to share your motivations, hopes and goals with heirs, successor trustees and/or beneficiaries of your philanthropy in a direct, personal and enduring way.”

Deep personal values tend to change little—and as a result, they can provide a continuing touchstone throughout a lifetime of philanthropy. So before you start to write a mission statement or statement of intent, it can be useful to put down some “anchors” by identifying those particular values around which you think you want to center your giving choices. We call these anchors the “Five Ps”: Are there certain people, places, problems, pathways (i.e., particular approaches or solutions), and philosophies that matter to you, and, if so, how will they define your giving? Use these anchors to ground your approach to giving. Then build on that foundation to flesh out the type of statement that works best for you.

For some inspiration, see Donor Values and Beliefs: Sample Statements for a few examples of how leading donors have expressed their values and beliefs.

You may also find the Statement of Values and Beliefs Worksheet useful. You can print it out and use it to help to direct your thinking about your values and beliefs and generate your own statement.

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