A family mission statement is a critical part of successful wealth transfer, uniting all family members and heirs around a common, agreed-upon purpose – and it’s the foundation of your enduring legacy.

This article is the fifth in a series taken from The One Page Legacy Plan by Phil Tobin, a free downloadable eBook from iGiftFund. In this piece, we’ll go over the first necessary steps to take when drafting your family’s mission statement, the anchor of your One Page Legacy Plan. Some material in this section is abstracted from an article written by Brett and Kate McKay, “Creating a Positive Family Culture: How and Why to Create a Family Mission Statement.”

What is a family mission statement? It’s best summed up by Stephen Covey, author of the wildly popular book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and subsequently, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families. Covey defines the family mission statement as: “A family mission statement is a combined, unified expression from all family members of what your family is all about – what it is you really want to do and be – and the principles you choose to govern your family life.”

Similar to the Declaration of Independence drafted by the founders of our country, the family’s mission becomes the moral standard, the family’s reason for existing. It encapsulates, in just a few words, the purpose of your family as the centerpiece of the enduring legacy we leave for future generations to celebrate, learn from, remember, and follow.

Having a shared vision – a shared sense of values and purpose – bonds parents and children together. A mission statement guides parenting or grandparenting decisions, offers the children clear ideals to strive for, and guidance in what choices to make. A mission statement also articulates the standards by which each member of the family can evaluate each other’s behavior. Ideally, parents and their children will check and encourage one another as they make their way down this agreed-upon path.

Yet another benefit is that a family mission statement tends to distinguish your family from others, providing all members a sense of meaning and identity and giving your children the feeling of being part of something important and special.

As you get started, it’s important not to get hung up on whether your family mission statement “sounds good” or “looks right.” The process of creating the mission statement is the important part. It’s the meaningful conversations with your spouse or partner and your children about what’s really important in life. It’s the bonding that develops as you practice empathy. You’ll have a chance to connect as a family – not just to hear one another, but to listen.

Sharing your vision with your family – as well as the values and principles you think should guide the family – their confidence in the family unit will increase as you begin to share ideas. Having an open discussion about family values and mission will guide them toward thinking about how these important principles fit into their own lives.

Also, know up front that creating your family mission statement is a long, robust process. Don’t get discouraged if it takes longer than you anticipate. The important thing is that you’re starting a conversation on the purpose of the family. This is a lifelong, multigenerational discussion – it’s very important.

And because every family is different, there isn’t a wrong way to go about this process. But in my experience working with hundreds of families over the last thirty-one years, here are some first steps in the process that can be helpful:

Call a Family Meeting. While your role is to initiate and guide the process, every member of the family should have a say and be part of the plan’s creation. The first step in creating a family mission statement is to hold a family meeting where everyone can participate in the discussion.

In his book, Covey recommends making these meetings special occasions. The key is to make the occasion different from any other “family meeting” or night of the week. Keep in mind the following guidelines:

  1. Make sure everyone gets a say. As the family leader, don’t let any single person monopolize the discussion. Make sure everyone has a say. Remember: where there’s no involvement, there’s no commitment.
  2. Listen empathetically. Really focus on listening. Keep in mind your children’s ages. We all want to feel that our ideas and thoughts matter. You may discover that while you’re on the same page on some things, you might not be on other matters.
  3. Write it down. Make sure someone is capturing all the ideas that get discussed during the mission statement session. Review the notes when you actually sit down to write out the statement. If you have older kids who can write, elect one of them to act as scribe and write down ideas on a dry erase board or easel pad so everyone can see.
  4. Remember: you don’t have to do this all at once. The last thing you want to do is to turn creating a family mission statement into a chore that your spouse and kids find unbearable. It’s okay to go slow. Parcel it out over several gatherings. To keep these meetings fun and engaging, you might also include food, drinks, or entertainment to further sweeten the deal.

Discuss What Your Family is About. Once you have everyone gathered, it’s time to start talking about what is your family’s mission. This is probably the most important part of the process. This is your chance to communicate your values to your children and grandchildren and collaboratively put those values into action.

Even if you don’t have children, that doesn’t mean you can’t (or shouldn’t) create a family mission statement. If you’re newly married, I think the exercise can be immensely beneficial. Marriages are made up of two different people who have different ideas or scripts on how a family “should” work. Maybe your spouse comes from a family where both husband and wife are expected to contribute to household chores, while your family split tasks along more traditional gender lines. Or maybe your family rarely vacationed and never left the state when they did, while the other may come from a family of globetrotters and can’t wait to take your future kids on their first trip to Europe.

If you want to avoid conflict early on in your marriage, you and your spouse need to get on the same page when it comes to values, goals, and role expectations. Creating a family mission statement will help you do just that. Instead of living by the family scripts you saw as a child, you and your spouse can create your own.

Covey offers some starter questions in his book to help start the thought process:

For families of two…

  • What kind of marriage partners do we want to be?
  • What is the purpose of our marriage?
  • How do we want to treat each other and resolve differences?
  • How can we both support each other in our respective goals?
  • How do we want to handle finances?
  • What roles will each of us have?
  • How can we best relate to each other’s families?
  • What traditions do we bring with us from the families in which we were raised?
  • What traditions do we want to keep and create?
  • How do we want to give back?
  • Are there things from our respective family histories that we’re happy or unhappy with?
  • How can we change them if we’re unhappy?

For families of three or more…

  • What is the purpose of our family?
  • What kind of family do we want to be?
  • What kinds of things do we want to do?
  • What kind of feeling do we want to have in our home?
  • What kind of home would you like to invite your friends to?
  • What embarrasses you about our family?
  • What makes you want to come home?
  • What do we want to be remembered by?
  • What kind of relationships do we want to have with one another?
  • How do we want to treat one another and speak to one another?
  • What things are truly important to us as a family?
  • What are the unique talents, gifts, and abilities of family members?
  • What are our responsibilities as family members?
  • What are the principles and guidelines we want our family to follow?
  • Who are our heroes? What it is about them that we like and would like to emulate?
  • What families inspire us and why do we admire them?
  • How can we contribute to society as a family and become more service-oriented?

By discussing some of these questions, you’ll be set up for the next, important steps of completing your family mission statement.

Phil Tobin is Chairman and President of iGiftFund.

Next in this series:
It’s important to capture your family’s concrete values in your family mission statement – but paring those values down and capturing their essence can be a challenge. We’ll discuss how to do so effectively. 

About iGiftFund

iGiftFund is an IRS-recognized, independent, public charity that sponsors donor advised funds.  Its mission is to inspire donors to create, preserve and distribute their philanthropic legacy and to make a truly remarkable impact on the lives of others, including the donor.

With the hallmarks of simplicity, accessibility and low administrative fees, iGiftFund sets the standard of excellence in the industry and distinguishes itself from the large, national commercial and independent DAF sponsors. Based in Hudson, Ohio, iGiftFund works nationally with donors and with financial advisors on their familiar investment platform, in open architecture. iGiftFund’s administrative fees are the most competitive in the industry, starting at just 45 basis points on the first $500,000 tier.