A frequent question we hear from Foundation Source clients when they first establish their foundation is whether they should create a mission statement. Our answer: yes, but not necessarily right away.

Yet conventional philanthropic wisdom suggests that creating a mission is a critical first step in launching one’s foundation. Most advisors consider this the best way to get foundation members marching in the same direction. While creating a mission certainly makes good sense for those who know exactly what they want to accomplish from the outset, it is not necessarily the best route for everyone.

Does a foundation have to have a mission statement? The IRS requires that private foundations have a statement specifying the organization’s charitable intent in its incorporating documents. To fulfill this mandate, many foundations adopt the broad statutory language that defines all nonprofits (e.g., “for religious, scientific, literary, educational or other charitable purposes.”) Beyond this, there is no legal requirement to create a mission statement.

Our experience working with over 2,000 foundations has shown that when new philanthropists settle upon an explicit mission too early in the life of their foundation—before they’ve found a compelling issue or cause that they’re truly passionate about—they often struggle to live within its constraints.

Rushing to declare the foundation’s mission can result in the ongoing frustration of constantly having to say “no” to enticing opportunities that lie outside your designated area of focus. Some may find the prospect of issuing constant rejections disheartening and disengage from giving altogether.

For these reasons, we recommend an evolutionary approach to the articulation of your foundation’s purpose.