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August 3, 2022

How can you use your vision, mission, and values to guide your donor communications?

Ruth McFarlane

How can your organization use its vision, mission, and values to guide and inform your work? Farra, co-director, talks with Ruth McFarlane, chief advancement officer at Ms. Foundation for Women about their vision, mission, and value statements and how they were created.


Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and member-owner at Big Duck. Today, we’re going to really explore the question, “How can you use your vision, mission, and values to guide your donor communications?” Before we get into who we’re talking to, which I’m very excited about, and really dive into our questions, I want to just start by saying, as a frame, that clear vision, mission, and values are really essential to building strong relationships with your community. And in today’s episode, I’m going to be talking with Ruth McFarlane about how to develop these statements and how you can use them to guide your communications, with a particular focus today on how you can use them to engage donors. We’ll also talk about other types of communications and other messaging, but let me first tell you about Ruth.

Farra Trompeter: I got a chance to meet Ruth through her work at the Ms. Foundation. We’ve been doing some work with them along the branding and fundraising campaign lines. We’ve also done some work thinking about their communications team, and we had a chance recently to collaborate on this topic for a session for the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ New York City Fundraising Day 2022 Conference, along with some other colleagues, both at Big Duck and in the nonprofit world. That session was called, “Start with why: The importance of rooting your communications in vision, mission, and values,” and if you’re really interested in this topic, and which hopefully you’ll be even more interested after today’s conversation, invite you to connect with us, but also we’ll be doing a webinar on this topic in August. So, if you’re listening to this podcast, as soon as it comes out, come to and sign up for the webinar. If you’re listening to it later, you can always watch a video on our website.

Farra Trompeter: So, let me tell you about Ruth. Ruth McFarlane, she/her, is the Chief Advancement Officer at the Ms. Foundation for Women. She previously worked in fundraising and programs at the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the San Francisco LGBT Community Center. Ruth also holds a Masters in Social Work from the University of California in Berkeley and a J.D. from Cornell Law School. So she’s a lawyer, a social worker, a fundraiser, a communicator, and an amazing person who I’ve had the chance to also enjoy a nice glass of something with. Ruth, welcome to the show.

Ruth McFarlane: Hi, Farra, it’s great to be here with you.

Farra Trompeter: So, just to get us all on the same page, at Big Duck we really believe a vision statement should articulate your vision for the world, and that mission statements describe how your organization really works to accomplish that vision. Really, what you actually do. So while mission statements are about the actual purpose of your organization, vision statements paint a picture of the future, something that’s often really motivating and idealistic. Values state the key beliefs and philosophies that guide your work, both internally and externally. Now, while Big Duck did do the brand strategy and messaging and some other work for the Ms. Foundation for Women, we actually came in after you all had updated your vision, mission, and values. And just to get us going, I’d love it if you can share a little bit about your vision, mission, and value statements and how they were created.

Ruth McFarlane: Sure, absolutely. It’s interesting, I also came to Ms. after the process of creating these and got to live in the house that someone else built, and it is a well-built house. So, let’s talk, I guess, first through the language, our mission is “to build women’s collective power in the United States to advance equity and justice for all.” So that’s what the Ms. Foundation says we’re doing. Our vision is that “We believe in a just and safe world where power and possibility are not limited by gender, race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or age. We believe that equity and inclusion are the cornerstones of a true democracy in which the worth and dignity of every person are valued.” And then our values are “integrity, trust and respect, interconnectedness, social justice.” And we talk about that as, ITIS Ms. Foundation, I-T-I-S, so that we all remember them. And it’s really important, and if you want to see them, folks who are listening can go to our website to see those pieces in full and look at the text there. But the process to create these was really integrated with the team, and it also happened at a really important moment in our history. Teresa C. Younger, our current CEO and President, joined the Ms. Foundation seven going on eight years ago, and when she joined, she had a really clear vision about moving the Ms. Foundation forward into a long-standing vision around inclusivity, around inclusion, but really being unapologetic and straightforward about centering women and girls of color, and really being straightforward about the fact that we are working at the intersection of race and gender.

Ruth McFarlane: So, to do that well, they went into a strategic planning process that included parallel tracks. One track of the staff, leadership, and right down through the full team, worked on this language, and another track worked on the cultural shift required to get this all embedded into the organization. And those two things happened at the same time. So, while they worked with a consultant to come up with words that would allow us to do some of the bridging that you and I are going to talk about, I think, a little bit, they also made sure that staff from leadership throughout we’re really thinking about, “Okay, if this is what we say we believe, that this is what we say who we want to be in the world, the work we want to do in the world, and these are our values, how will we make sure they show up day-to-day?” And so there’s plenty of examples, but one great example that came from that was our culture club, which was a staff-led group that made sure that we were continually learning together and reflecting on our values and having folks come in and speak to us and educate us around things that were related to our mission, vision, and values so that they weren’t just on the wall, and they are on the wall all over the Ms. Foundation’s offices, but they’re also something that’s just embedded in our DNA at this point.

Farra Trompeter: And for the Gen Xers out there, I’m just smiling cause now I have the songs Karma Chameleon and I’ll Tumble 4 Ya in my mind, and if you don’t know who that is, go to YouTube or Spotify and look up Culture Club. We’ll do a link to a fun video. So, back on track, I want to note that I really appreciate, and we’ve had this conversation a lot around the values work that we do with organizations, which it’s not just the statements and the clarity, but “How will you put them into practice?” And sometimes you might just put that external expression of the values on your website or in your annual report, but really making sure internally you understand how these values work and how they guide what you do is really critical. So I love that that was put on equal weight and really should be given that.

Farra Trompeter: Now the Ms. Foundation is almost 50 years old. I know because I think the foundation and I basically share the same birthday, and the Ms. Foundation was really started during what’s really, I think, considered the second wave of feminism and has evolved over several more waves of feminism. I’m not sure if we’re in the fourth or the fifth now or tenth, given everything that’s happened the past few weeks. I’m curious, how does the Ms. Foundation for Women use their vision, mission, and values to actually guide their marketing and communications, particularly as an organization that has such a rich legacy and also as an organization that has supporters which span multiple generations?

Ruth McFarlane: Yeah, I mean, what you said about waves and the waves of feminism have really been in mind, that metaphor, because I think we’re cresting, right now, yet another wave, and we’re about to see sort of a reimagining of what feminism means in our democracy, in our movements, et cetera. Which is really important when you come to how we hold ourselves out at the Ms. Foundation around mission, vision, and values. So, we constantly, in such a dynamic environment, and obviously this moment is hugely exemplary of that, we’re constantly grounding ourselves in our universal, in our north star, which is collective power. And that mission statement works to really highlight that universal. It’s women’s collective power in the United States, and then it glances, the mission allows us to kind of glance, into a future that is gender-neutral, right? To advance equity and justice for all. And that’s a shift away from where we were in the second wave of feminism, where it really was women’s rights. It really was the gender binary and focusing on cisgender women, often white women, right, and their needs in their lives and moving forward, and so the mission begins to do that. In the vision, we go beyond gender. If you look at the language in our vision, there is no reference to gender in our vision statement. There’s the reference to the idea of gender, but it isn’t specifically about women or girls. It is very broad. It is intended to give us lots and lots of space to have a vision around something that’s inclusive, that can live into the future. And here, where I see our vision leaning is towards democracy, and it allows us to make sure that we’re tethering the work of philanthropy to building a better democracy. And that, I think, is a really important concept in our work and helps us to seat the conversation differently with different generations, with different audiences, because people really are engaging democracy in a different way across their lifespan.

Ruth McFarlane: And then the last thing is that Ms. is an institution, right? We have the Ms. Foundation, you have Gloria Steinem, this is an institution. I always joke and say, “If you look up the word feminism, her picture’s right next to it.” She is an icon, and Ms., itself, from the history of Ms. Magazine, is also an icon, and people don’t expect icons and institutions to change very much. They are what they were when you first encountered them. But our movements change, and generations have really different ideas about words like woman and feminism, and so we use these different pieces of our mission and vision to give us places to land that are relevant for different audiences.

Farra Trompeter: That’s great. Now beyond communications, broadly, and thinking about generations, you also oversee fundraising at the foundation, and I’m curious, how do you actually use these vision, mission, and values to communicate with donors who support or potentially could support the foundation?

Ruth McFarlane: It’s a great question, and I referred earlier to the transition that’s happened over the last, less than a decade at Ms. When we sort of stepped bravely into this space of being unapologetic and very clear about centering women and girls of color as a point of inclusion, as a place to start from, that was not an idea that had much penetration throughout the culture. It really didn’t, it was something that was fairly comfortable in highly progressive settings, but immediately as I was talking to donors and my past nonprofit, my past organization struggled with the very same thing. So, we had a donor base, an amazing, wonderful donor base that had been with us since the seventies, since the eighties, like Ms., and so you have folks who were very comfortable with thinking about the work the way they think about the work and thinking about race and gender the way they thought about it. And here we were changing. And so to bring donors along, not just on a journey of the organization, but their own journey, especially white donors on their own journey about race as the country is evolving right in front of us, has been great. It’s been challenging work. It’s been really fulfilling and exciting work, I will say, and certainly gratifying to see the leap forward that the country has taken and our base has taken since 2020. And the uprising after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others. We saw the country kind of leap forward in many ways and join us where we were, and so the conversations I’m having now are not like the ones that I was having three and four years ago. But we definitely use the clarity of the mission statement, equity and justice for all, what does that really mean? What does the world and our democracy need to look like so that there aren’t these limitations around identity? And we can really kind of get into the meat of a conversation with an individual about kind of how they are existing in the world and things they may not have noticed about the ease with which they move through the world relative to somebody else.

Farra Trompeter: That’s great, and I think you’re talking a lot, especially as these things are coming up in one-on-one conversations with major donors and other supporters, but I’m curious if you can also put a finer point on it and, maybe in this example, it will give folks some ideas of any specific ways you’ve actually shaped or changed a fundraising appeal or a campaign, or an ask you were going to make to someone based on the vision, mission, and/or values. And feel free to draw on your work with the Ms. Foundation or some of the other amazing nonprofits you’ve worked for as well.

Ruth McFarlane: Yeah. A good example of that, actually, in the last couple of years has been the copy that we have used at our end of calendar year and end of fiscal year campaigns, our big campaigns where we have the broad-based direct mail strategies, and things are pretty high-level copy, pretty universal, kind of trying to reach all the audiences, that type of fundraising copy. And two years ago, when I joined Ms., every single time we said “women,” we said “women and girls of color, gender-nonconforming, and transgender people.” I mean, we had this long thing that we did every single time, and the reason we were doing that, this was pre-2020, and we were still operating in an environment where we couldn’t make the assumption that our donors would understand implicitly how inclusive we actually were. And so we just had to state it.

Ruth McFarlane: I remember when I joined, Teresa was still ending almost every single speech or beginning it with the vision statement. Like, the whole thing. And it just felt really pedantic, but it felt necessary. In my first year, I got feedback multiple times from donors. You know, “Why do you say it like that? Why do you say it over and over? It just feels repetitive. It’s too repetitive, it’s redundant.” And in those cases, I was then doing that work of engaging them in a journey around why they were responding that way, and, you know, what that might be about. In the last year, one, we have moved away from that type of repetitive, really pounding the point language and trusted more that our donors would understand that there was great expansiveness and inclusiveness when we used the word woman or girl, and really moving ourselves towards kind of a trust of our base and really using the more specific identifiers around women of color, non-binary, transgender people, et cetera, when that’s particularly relevant because, in conversations with donors, we’re hearing a really different story. They get it, right? They get it. Most of them, not everybody, but it is rare now that I’m going to have a conversation with somebody who’s kind of in their feelings about the intersection of race and gender and whether or not they’re being left behind. They get it. And so, one, that’s really exciting and celebratory, but two, it has asked us, in shaping the language around mission and vision and values, to shift, right? We have to grow, too, we have to let go of some of the thumping that we, you know, I want to say pulpit thumping – I grew up in a church family – that we had been doing.

Farra Trompeter: I really appreciate that, and first of all, thank you and the Ms. Foundation for doing that work and helping shift the culture and getting to a place where hopefully people are more evolved, though I know there’s still miles to go in the work we all have to do there. Before we wrap up, I do like to give folks tangible advice and tips, and I’m just curious if there’s anything else that comes to mind for you about how nonprofits’ staff that might be leading development and communications, how they could use their vision, mission, and values to guide and inform their work, communicating to their overall base, communicating to supporters, you know, what comes to mind for you?

Ruth McFarlane: One thing is thinking really carefully about how the language of your mission and your vision are relevant now. I’ve worked places where, “Yeah, I’ve got to memorize that thing, and I have to say that thing, cause that’s the tag,” but you don’t necessarily think about how it’s relevant right now, and I think the moment that we’re in right now demands that of us. That we make our work relevant for our audiences, that we explain why it matters right now because so much is happening and changing so fast. And then the other thing I would say, and I think Ms. has done this really, really well, is bring your whole team along on the journey. Get these ideas and these values really embedded in the system, in the people, in the hearts so that it isn’t something that when you’re in the copy and design and distribution strategy phases of things, you’re thinking about how to add this on, “Oh, did we mention,” or “Is it there?” It’s just baked in. It’s already there.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, you’re talking about so many great things. There’s the messaging and the communication strategy, but there’s also change management and engagement and culture and internal communications, and you can’t see these things as separate anymore. The best organizations, we often say, if you really want to have a transformative impact in your brand and how you communicate, you’ve got to connect them. And I really appreciate you lifting that up.

Ruth McFarlane: Yeah.

Farra Trompeter: I think for folks out there, that if you’re listening if you’re in a moment where you want to take a step back and do what we call a brand check-up and really take a fresh look in how you’re communicating, encourage you to do that. We’ll link to an article of something I wrote a few years ago, talking about a process to do that, or you’re always welcome to reach out to us, see if we can help. I also want to say, specifically around mission statements, we’ve got a worksheet on our website at You can get to our tools section, you’ll see something on tips for writing a mission statement. We also have a blog that we wrote, not that long ago, about four different directions you can take your vision statement. So there’s a lot of fodder out there to spark thinking, and just, to Ruth’s point, now is a good time with everything shifting yet again in our world, we’re recording this in the summer of 2022, this could be a good time to take a step back and look at how you’re communicating and really rethink, “What is your vision, mission, values, and how are you using it to guide your communications with donors and, of course, the rest of your community?”

Farra Trompeter: So, if you are inspired by this conversation, to either look at your own vision, mission, and values, or even to learn more about what the Ms. Foundation for Women is up to, that would be great. If you’d like to learn more about the Ms. Foundation for Women, visit their website at forwomen, You can also follow them on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and you can connect with Ruth on LinkedIn, too. Ruth, thank you so much for being here.

Ruth McFarlane: Farra, thanks for having me.