Choosing a Focus

What do you want to achieve with your foundation?

Whether just starting to question the effects of your giving or ready to refine your strategies for even greater results, taking time to focus can help you clarify what you want to achieve, use your resources wisely, measure progress, learn together with your trustees and staff, and move closer to your goals.

Your foundation can exist without a focus, of course. But, for many foundation leaders, choosing a focus is key to achieving more with their giving. Here are some ways to get started.

Have an Open Discussion

Many foundations focus on a particular field of interest, population, or geography. Others focus by strategy (e.g., building technology capacity, developing nonprofit leaders) and bolster a range of grantees by applying those strategies.

Settling on a focus is not necessarily an easy step—especially if your foundation has functioned in an unfocused manner for some time. Keep in mind the following sound reasons for choosing a focus:

  • Successful businesses focus; foundations that focus see results too. Businesses choose a market niche based on the biggest bang for the buck, and foundations can benefit from applying the same logic. After all, many foundations are led by those with savvy business minds.
  • A focus directs your time wisely. Board members and staff have limited time; use it wisely by focusing their efforts. A focus allows your key players to know issues and grantees more intimately and bring to bear their knowledge, reputations, and influence—all of which are equally, if not more, powerful than the foundation’s dollars.
  • A focus allows foundation trustees and staff to communicate more effectively. A focus will help you to communicate what you do and why to current and potential grantees, fellow funders, elected officials, and others interested in your work. Nonprofits, in particular, benefit when foundations are clear about their priorities, because they spend less time barking up the wrong trees.
  • A focus provides a framework for decision making. With a focus in hand, many other decisions about governance, grantmaking, administration, and investments fall into place.
  • A focus leads to fulfillment. When seasoned foundation leaders give advice to newcomers, they repeatedly share the following tip: Focus your giving. Not only is foundation work less overwhelming with clear boundaries in play, but foundation insiders are more fulfilled when they know where to look for the effects of their work.

Board members may nevertheless struggle with the notion of focus—and understandably so.

“Board members often engage in foundation work because it makes them feel good,” says Elizabeth Snowdon of the Hill- Snowdon Foundation, “but changing the status quo to focus doesn’t necessarily feel good. For starters, it’s difficult to say no to some wonderful organizations.”

To move the conversation about focus forward, be sure to clarify the following:

  • You can agree on a focus. Board members may have strong and opposing opinions, but consensus is not impossible. Foundation boards can often find commonality by shifting the discussion away from personal interests or particular grantees to instead center on values. You’ll be surprised by the degree to which integrity, opportunity, compassion, and other values can create common ground.
  • You can accommodate board members with other interests. Focusing the foundation does not preclude your board from setting aside a portion of its giving for discretionary grants. In fact, many foundations allow board members and key staff to direct a portion of annual giving to organizations of their choice. You can also tap into board members’ interests by putting their talents and technical skills to use.
  • A focus does not prevent the foundation from being responsive. If your foundation has historically given to many organizations that asked, focusing will indeed be a significant change—and one that feels less responsive to certain causes. Keep in mind: Your foundation can be highly responsive to community needs by learning about the most critical ones and focusing your efforts there. You can also set aside a small portion of money to respond to emergencies, if that type of giving is important to you.
  • A foundation isn’t limited to a single focus. In fact, many foundations have more than one focus. Just be sure that your assets, time, and energy are sufficient to achieve impact in more than one area.
  • A foundation can experiment with focus. Tentative foundations may initially apply only a small portion of the foundation’s assets in a focused manner. Of course, the benefits of a focus will only be seen if the board and staff direct their time and energy accordingly.
  • A foundation can shift from unfocused to focused over time. Even if you decide to focus, you can make the shift over a period of several years to give grantees time to find new funding sources. Using a small portion of your endowment for discretionary grants can also make the shift more palatable to trustees and key staff. Proceed only when your board is ready to choose the foundation’s focus.

Take Steps to Find a Focus

There is no one right way to settle on a focus, and many foundations use a combination of the methods that follow. Be sure to allow enough time for careful decision making— at a meeting or two or during a retreat.

Once you consider the approaches that follow, it is also important to recognize when you may need additional help. Some boards are able to facilitate productive discussions themselves, but others have greater success by engaging outside facilitators. Because agreement on a focus is of paramount importance, money for a consultant, if needed, is money well spent.

Note: Board members often must do the hard work of clarifying their own values and passions before they can articulate them for the entire board. In other words, don’t be surprised if it takes more than one meeting to arrive at consensus on a focus.

Here are some considerations that help foundations arrive at a focus:

Passions—Some boards develop a focus built on common passions. Because passions are often based on emotional connections, the following questions can help to uncover them:

  • About whom or what do you care deeply?
  • What excites you or brings you the greatest joy?
  • What angers you or breaks your heart?
  • What do you believe drives change?
  • Has an event significantly shaped who you are or what you believe?

Common values—Even individuals with outwardly polarized views can hold similar values, and, once found, they can lead to a unifying focus. Uncover shared values by asking questions such as:

  • What is critical for an individual to become a productive member of society?
  • What was key to your becoming the successful and productive person you are today?
  • What values guide your life choices?

21/64, a nonprofit consulting group specializing in next generation and multigenerational strategic philanthropy, offers a handy deck of Motivational Values cards, each with a value (e.g., justice, family) written on it. Individuals can prioritize the cards according to what motivates their philanthropy, then discuss their rankings with others in their group.

Says Rebecca Richards of the Maxine and Jack Zarrow Family Foundation’s experience with values cards, “We were surprised that all our board members selected three values in common: integrity, family, and responsibility.”

Once you identify the core values of your group, through key questions, group exercises, or other means, the board can begin to articulate a focus based on those values.

Critical community needs—Although board members may have their own—often well-informed—visions for a community, it can also be helpful to hear from the community about its needs. With the community’s voice in hand, board members can craft a focus that also incorporates board members’ interests, strengths, and skills.

For example, Tracy Family Foundation’s board members shared common interests in education, family, and youth. After completing a community needs assessment that pointed to many critical needs, it became clear that education should become the foundation’s primary focus. Its interests in family and youth would be addressed as secondary focuses.

If board members have difficulty finding commonality in community needs, consider choosing a focus that is new for all board members. For example, The Tow Foundation found great power in group ownership of an unfamiliar but critical focus: juvenile justice.

Donor legacy—If your donor expressed interest in a particular focus, consider how you might respect the donor’s wishes, whether the donor is living or deceased. In the best scenarios, boards create a focus that also resonates with current board members. Even if the donor’s interests are narrow, board members can still find fulfillment by looking deeper for values in common with the donor.

The Hau’oli Mau Loa Foundation’s donor had no desire to constrict foundation decisions, but, to help future directors, she did share her motivations for establishing the foundation. In a letter, she explained her two areas of interest: bringing hope to those less fortunate, especially children, and environmental conservation. Following her death, the directors used those interests—and values the donor exemplified—to settle on the foundation’s focus areas and the way staff would do their work.

Meaningful grants—Foundations often uncover a focus by reviewing past grants. Look for grants that addressed a particularly meaningful cause, stood out because of impressive results, or made board members proud.

Says Nan Pugh of Pugh Family Foundation, “For 7 years, we simply made grants to nonprofits we liked. When we looked back at those programs, we realized that most dealt with poverty and education in southern Louisiana. Now our mission is to support organizations that address education and anti-poverty efforts within the Acadiana community.

A single strategy—Some foundations find focus via a single but powerful strategy. This approach allows the foundation to gain expertise that can be leveraged across issue areas.

For example, The Fledgling Fund believes strongly in using media to build momentum among large numbers of people. Stated concisely, The Fledgling Fund focuses on improving the lives of vulnerable individuals, families, and communities by supporting innovative media projects that target entrenched social problems.

Populations of interest—Think about the populations that interest you. For example, your foundation may want to focus on the elderly or children.

Build a Powerful Mission

Once you’ve defined the foundation’s focus, it is useful to write a mission statement, or a concise statement of purpose for the foundation. If your foundation already has a mission statement in place, be sure to review and refine it as needed to accurately reflect the foundation’s current focus.

A mission statement will keep the foundation on track and make your purpose clear to grantseekers and others interested in your work. It is the groundwork for all foundation activities, from the strategies you choose to the financial investments you make to the individuals you invite to be board members.

A meaningful mission helps you to:

  • Engage board members around a shared purpose
  • Deflect funding requests outside your focus
  • Ease decision making, because some projects further your mission more than others

It’s best to keep your mission statement succinct—just a sentence or two at the most. A mission statement’s power is in its simplicity, or its ability to be communicated easily.

Here are a few foundation mission statements:

  • The Sunflower Foundation serves as a catalyst for improving the health of Kansans. —Sunflower Foundation, Topeka, KS
  • The foundation focuses on enrichment and empowerment of children and youth under age 19 to prevent exploitation, poverty, and injustice. —The Susan A. and Donald P. Babson Charitable Foundation, Boston, MA
  • The Ann Campana Judge Foundation exists to promote, undertake, support, and fund philanthropic projects in and relating to developing countries that focus on water, health, sanitation, and student involvement. — Ann Campana Judge Foundation, Albuquerque, NM

At this stage, with a mission as your clear guiding force, you are ready to create a road map to achieve impact in your focus area. For help, see Additional Resources for the tools created as part of ASF’s Getting to Impact initiative.

Make Impact a Priority

Donors establish foundations for any number of reasons: to make a difference, leave a legacy, give back out of guilt or gratitude, benefit from tax incentives, unify a family, or promote charitable giving among current or future generations.

To make the most of your foundation’s giving, be sure to establish impact as a priority. Some may even encourage you to make it the priority, with other motivations playing lesser roles or being fulfilled outside the foundation altogether. In the absence of clear priorities, board members’ personal interests can easily take precedence—and some of those interests may compete with the foundation’s fundamental purpose to advance the common good.

“We like to think of ourselves as stewards of the money entrusted to us,” says Lindsay Matush of Brown Sisters Foundation. “With this in mind, we seek to do the very best we can with what we’ve been given. It seems that a focus on impact is the clearest path to that end.”

Some boards can prioritize impact without much discussion; others will find it more difficult. Depending on your foundation’s particulars, you might consider a heart-to-heart conversation about the foundation’s priorities, a facilitated dialogue, an anonymous survey to uncover trustees’ motivations, or some combination. Whatever the format, be sure to document the discussion and any decisions for future reference

Additional Resources

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