Ask the Center: Donor Legacy Statements, Values Statements and Ethical Wills (March 2011 FGN)


I work for a small family foundation as their non-family executive director. The foundation has been in existence for 25 years. In the near term, I will be sitting down with the founder, who is preparing to write his legacy. I am wondering if you’re familiar with other founders who have shared excerpts concerning their vision for philanthropy that you thought to be a best practice. Are there differences between donor legacy statements, values statements, and ethical wills, and when is the appropriate time to use each?

Donor legacy statements, values statements and ethical wills have joined bylaws and mission statements as important documents for describing a family’s philanthropic activities and hopes. While they serve complementary purposes, there are important differences between these useful documents.

A donor (or family) legacy statement typically focuses on how the overall life experiences of the donor (or family) inform and guide the grantmaking mission, strategies and practices of the foundation. These statements may be written by the donor alone, by the donor and other family members, or, in cases where the donor is no longer alive, by family members alone.

The Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation legacy statement was written based on interviews with family members and colleagues of founder Robert Switzer, along with a review of Bob’s Switzer’s speeches and writings for the foundation. The Foundation describes the goal of its legacy statement as follows: “This Donor Legacy Statement attempts to communicate the original motivating forces for the establishment of the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation as an environmental foundation, the values and interests of the founding donors, and the lessons learned from the early years of the Foundation’s operation to guide future stewardship and management of the Foundation.”

Examples of three legacy statements included in the National Center’s Online Knowledge Center follow – the first is written in the personal voice of the founder, the others developed by family members:

A values statement for a foundation typically describes how the values of the family inform the grantmaking and

practices of the foundation. While many of these values may have been passed along by the donor(s) to other family members, National Center President Virginia Esposito suggests that it is critical that values statements for family foundations focus on the shared values of the family, rather than the personal values of the donor. “Conversations about shared values are critical when there is a common enterprise such as a family business or philanthropy. The effectiveness of the enterprise may depend on the quality of the family relationships and the commitment to a set of shared values.”

Selected examples of family foundation values statements include:

Finally, ethical wills typically encompass a discussion of more than just the family’s philanthropy. An ethical will is a letter about how the writer lived his/her life and what he has learned and hopes to pass along to his/her children and grandchildren both philanthropically and in other areas of life.Ethicalwills.com says that ethical wills are typically “written by people at turning points and transitions in their lives and when facing challenging life situations” and that “they are usually shared with family and community while the writer is still alive.”

Personal Legacy Advisors shares a variety of samples for ethical wills.

Additional Resources

Additional resources for those interested in values statements, legacy statements, and ethical wills include:

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