More Than a Portrait on the Wall: Preserving Donor Intent at the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies


More Than a Portrait on the Wall:
Preserving Donor Intent at the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies

By Neil Maghami, Foundation Watch, August 2015 (PDF here)

Summary:  The Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, an aggregation of three grant-making organization, remains true to the charitable, largely environmental and cultural, objectives of its late benefactor.  While she was alive Cargill made clear what she wanted done with her money and hired people she trusted to carry out her wishes. 

Like many heirs to great American family fortunes, Margaret Anne Cargill (1920-2006) lived quietly and modestly. She was the grand-daughter of William Wallace Cargill, who founded the massive agri-business of the same name. As an adult, Margaret Cargill lived in Southern California and had a life-long interest in arts and crafts, including fiber arts and making jewelry, and travel.

By one estimate, during the last 15 years of her life she donated more than $200 million to various causes such as the American Red Cross and the Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution, while exercising a strong preference to remain anonymous in her giving.

Prior to her death in La Jolla, California in 2006, Cargill had made arrangements for the disposition of her assets through what are now known as the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, composed of three organizations located in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

Together, these organizations represent about $7 billion in net assets. The Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies are collectively taking various steps to preserve donor intent, and not only in the immediate term, but in the decades to come. The effort by these three philanthropic bodies to safeguard and embed donor intent in their operations is the focus of this issue of Foundation Watch.

First Steps
It’s important to emphasize at the outset that, despite its name, the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies are independent of Cargill, Inc., the multinational giant that employs more than 150,000 workers in 67 countries. (Some advisors urge donors never to give a philanthropy the same name as a family business, for fear that the philanthropy may embarrass the company, or worse, that nervous corporate types will lean on the philanthropy to make only the most tepid kind of grants that arouse no controversy.)

There is a corporate Cargill Foundation completely unrelated to the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies. As Sallie Gaines, communications director for the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, explained to this writer: “we are not a family foundation—only Margaret Cargill’s money served as our funding source, and only her wishes guide our grantmaking. No other family members are on our boards or otherwise involved.”

Three organizations are united under the umbrella of the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies. The most prominent is the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation (MACF), with net assets of just over $3 billion, according to its most recent publicly available filings with the IRS. The other two—Akaloa Resource Foundation (net assets of $184 million as of 2013) and Anne Ray Charitable Trust (net assets of $3.7 billion as of 2013)—were created in 1995 and 1996, respectively.

The best account to date of how the Philanthropies came together is available through statements made by the Philanthropies’ current CEO, Christy Morse, as part of a series of videos posted to the Bridgespan Group’s website (

Morse spent the first 15 years of her career working for Cargill, and later worked directly for the Cargill family. She came into contact with Margaret A. Cargill as a result, first through a long correspondence that led to Morse assisting Cargill with her finances. The result was a close personal connection, even before the two had their first in-person meeting, which soon resulted in a warm friendship.

In the late 1990s, Morse and Cargill had, in Morse’s words, “numerous discussions about what was going to happen in the future” in terms of Cargill’s philanthropy. Cargill would say to Morse: “Honey, you know what I want to do – just go do it!”

Morse says, “my response would be … that I was going to die too, and her funding and her good works could continue on in perpetuity—and in order for us to be assured that her wishes and what she saw as her legacy would go forward, we needed to document that.” Morse arranged for an extensive series of sessions where Cargill was probed “about her wishes” for her estate, order to document “the values that she wanted to exhibit” in her posthumous acts of philanthropy.

The result of this consultation was a draft paper that captured what Cargill had said. Cargill “took that document and of course changed it up … and this went on for 6 or 9 months. They went back and forth “creating a document that would provide guiding principles, that would provide commentary on interest areas, on values, on her intentions for what future trustees and future leaders of [her foundations] should be, what qualities they would have, what qualities or what things including interest areas that she did not want to fund. We tried to explore all those things and document them, because we knew there would come a day when none of us would be involved, and it would still be important for her spirit to carry on” (emphasis added).

While the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies have not made this document public, Sallie Gaines, communications director, told me that “internally, we have a document that lays out our purpose, and the first item on that is ‘honor the wishes of our donor, Margaret Cargill.’” The essence of the document, Gaines said, is reflected in the Philanthropies’ “Philosophy of Grant Making,” which is reproduced below:

Our grantmaking reflects our values and Margaret Cargill’s guiding principles and is always directed toward our mission and core purposes. We expect our grantmaking across all three grantmaking entities to have these characteristics:

* We lead with our values, internally and externally.

* We partner with capable organizations that have demonstrated their ability to work successfully in our interest areas and in a manner consistent with our values. We look to our grantees as partners and co-learners.

* We provide meaningful support to strategic grantees.

* We support work in and with communities toward sustainable solutions.

* We pay special attention to underserved or low-attention areas, populations, or issues.

* We value and affirm the integration of all functions of the Philanthropies in our grantmaking.

* We make measurable impact on focused goals.

* We evaluate our work, reshape our approaches as we learn, share and apply our learning to future grantmaking.

All this we do, not to bring recognition to ourselves, but to support our grantees in the work they do to provide meaningful assistance and support to society, the arts, and the environment, in a manner consistent with our founder’s wishes and intent. Done well, this will distinguish us.

Understanding Margaret Cargill’s Intent
Even with her extensive consultation with Cargill to guide her, however, Morse has said, “I think one thing I would do differently—if I could turn back the clock—would be to listen more intently and to probe more thoroughly with Margaret when she was alive. We talked deeply about many things. But knowing what I know today about the topics that she was interested in, and the issues that she was interested in, I would perhaps spend more time with her talking about very underlying kinds of themes and beliefs—and less about what was happening at the very moment.”

“Because I think it’s those values and those underlying beliefs that are going to see this organization through in the years when she is gone and I am gone and anyone who knew her is gone. I think it’s important for philanthropists as they go into developing their own philanthropy to say, ‘what are the core values and issues that I want to deal with,’ and then go up a level,” Morse continued.

“Don’t start at a high level—go deep and … surround yourself as Margaret did, with people who have similar values and who can adapt to the changes that are bound to come, but are up to the challenge of saying, ‘this is at the core, and how we improve the world through that core, can change and we can adapt and we can move forward that way, while still maintaining that underlying base and value system. I think that’s the big challenge for us here—is to create a culture that can carry that on.”

Putting the Vision into Action
Following Cargill’s passing, her vision for the philanthropic application of personal wealth had to be put into action. Morse got to work. The two individuals who had assisted Morse in documenting Cargill’s wishes for her legacy were among the first people hired to work at the Philanthropies. “They knew her, they knew what she wanted, they had spent hours and hours with her talking about what she wanted, and I didn’t want to lose that. I didn’t want to lose their deep understanding and their knowledge of the person that was behind, and would be behind, what would be three very significant organizations,” Morse said.

In the additional hires that followed, Morse aimed to build an organization “that exhibits the values of people that exhibit the values and the culture that she [Cargill] would have wanted.”

Morse has also insisted that the foundation’s leadership and employees “hold at the deepest level the understanding that this isn’t ‘my money.’ This isn’t a program director or a program officer’s money. This is a stewardship that we have been given, that we have been lucky enough to be blessed by Margaret to hold. And so we are merely stewards of her legacy. And we are the ones that have been given the fiduciary responsibility to carry out [Margaret’s wishes] in the best way possible. So when we work with grantees, we are trying in the best way possible to accomplish goals, not to say as a funder, ‘we have power over you,’ but rather to say as a funder, ‘we are your partner, and we want to work together to accomplish something that is bigger and better than either of us.’ I think that’s crucial.”

Sallie Gaines, the foundation’s communications director, adds that “Our CEO’s strategy to instill these principles is to make Ms. Cargill a real person in the minds of all employees. Margaret isn’t just a portrait on a wall, she is everywhere in our offices—her furniture, her artwork, and photos of her life surround us. New employees receive a biography of Margaret that we commissioned; we also have a video that consists of interviews with people who knew her well,” Gaines shared. (One wonders if MACF could post excerpts from these videos and the biography on its website, to help the wider public become better acquainted with its founder and her legacy.)

The Impact of Donor Intent on Grants
In 2009, MACF made total charitable disbursements of $14.1 million; in 2010, $18.2 million; in 2011, $149 million; in 2012, $53.7 million; and in 2013, $50.6 million. The grants have been distributed across the issue areas MACF has identified as priorities, based on the consultations with Ms. Cargill: arts and cultures; environment; relief and resilience; aging services; children and families; health; animal welfare. In all cases, MACF makes grants on an invitation-only basis. “Trustees and program leaders use extensive research, tapping the expertise and experience of outside experts, to narrow our areas of focus and identify potential grantees,” MACF’s website states.

One early example of the way MACF works to incorporate its founder’s wishes into its operations involves the way Ms. Cargill “specifically favored on-the-ground programs rather than policy initiatives or endowments,” as MACF’s website notes.

We can learn more by reviewing some of Morse’s statements on the subject as it pertains to MACF’s environment-related funding. In thinking about how to approach the environment part of its mandate, Morse said in a video posted to, “we got together a large environmental advisory group and we listened to things that they were saying. We went back to the documents and the information that Margaret had provided on what she was interested in, and we slowly, slowly started honing in on parts of the world that we thought we can make an impact on. So we have looked at both the types of impact we want to have and the geographies where we feel we can work effectively.

“Because we work in [the] community, and because we care about the things that she was interested in, we have some automatic boundaries [emphasis added] for ourselves. In [the] environment, it’s one example also of where I think you have to decide or give thought to where you work at a personal level—do you work at community level, do you work at [the] policy level? Different organizations enter the discussion at different points, and that’s very good….”

“Margaret gave us instructions to work in [the] community [level]. She didn’t really want us to work in [the] policy [level]. But that doesn’t mean we can’t support other funders or other NGOs in their work at a policy level by providing information from our grantees that give[s] them the support and science to go forward at the policy level.”

“So I think it’s important to note that some of the areas of focus are incredibly difficult to narrow. I think you have to go through to whoever your funder is, or the legacy you are carrying on, or your belief system—you have to go back to that and say, ‘what values? where’s it important for us to work?’” Morse said.

In 2013, examples of MACF’s environmental giving include a grant of $250,000 to the Rainforest Foundation for “protection and management of indigenous lands” in Panama; $300,000 to the ClimateWorks Foundation to advance “the mission of the Climate and Land Use Alliance,” an initiative also supported by the Packard, Moore, and Ford Foundations; more than $1 million to the Conservation International Foundation for its work in Vietnam’s Mekong Basin; nearly $545,000 to Fauna & Flora International for its “forest conservation” work in Indonesia’s Jambi province; $570,000 to the Wildlife Conservation Society for its work in Vietnam; and just over $712,000 to the Tides Canada Foundation for a “Taku and BC Coast Capacity for Conservation Program.” (Tides Canada is the Canadian arm of the shadowy Tides Foundation, whose activities have been covered frequently by CRC.)

In the same year, MACF also provided three separate grants to the World Wildlife Fund that together total more than $2.3 million; and $10,000 to the doom-saying World Resources Institute for “operating support.”

As Morse and MACF staff work within the “automatic boundaries” specified by Margaret Cargill, another set of the founder’s “automatic boundaries” appears in the operations of her two other organizations. The Anne Ray Charitable Trust’s mission, for example, requires little interpretation; it was set up to exclusively provide grants to the following organizations, as designated by Ms. Cargill:

* The American National Red Cross, International Services Department, Washington, D.C.
* The American Swedish Institute, Minneapolis, Minnesota
* Berea College, Berea, Kentucky
* Mingei International, Inc., San Diego, California (a museum of folk art)
* The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, Virginia
* Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), Alexandria, Virginia
* St. Paul’s Retirement Homes Foundation, San Diego, California
* The Salvation Army, Sierra del Mar Division, San Diego, California
* School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe, New Mexico (an anthropological research institute)
* YMCA of the USA, Chicago, Ilinois

Similarly, the Akaloa Resource Foundation can make grants only to the following organizations, per Ms. Cargill’s wishes:

* The American National Red Cross, San Diego & Imperial Counties Chapter, California
* Idyllwild Arts Foundation, Idyllwild, California (an artistic/cultural educational group)
* KCETLink, Burbank, California (a viewer-support media non-profit)
* Mingei International, Inc., San Diego, California
* St. Paul’s Retirement Homes Foundation, San Diego, California
* The Salvation Army, Sierra del Mar Division, San Diego, California
* San Diego Humane Society & S.P.C.A., San Diego, California
* San Diego State University Foundation for the use of KPBS, San Diego, California

Unfortunately, unlike a fine wine, donor intent does not seem to improve with age. It pales as the decades pass, and institutional memory of and attachment to a foundation’s donor’s vision fades away. Or perhaps physics provides a more appropriate analogy: the gravitational “pull” of whatever happens to be the dominant belief system among a foundation’s trustees and staff inevitably eventually alters—permanently—a foundation’s initial orbit.

Whatever analogy you may prefer, an inescapable point in time seems to come where trustees (related to the founder or not) and staff alike feel they can blithely re-interpret, ignore, or evade the original donor’s intent. The list of foundations where donor intent has completely gone by the wayside is a long one, as documented so many times by CRC senior fellow Martin Morse Wooster in CRC’s The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of ‘Donor Intent’ (fourth edition to be published later this year). What will happen in future to Margaret A. Cargill’s donor intent? Will Cargill’s legacy and wishes continue to be at the center of the Philanthropies’ activities in, say, 2055? Or will she eventually be just a portrait on the wall, or a name on the front door and letterhead?

The Philanthropies are only a few years old. It would be unfair and unrealistic to pronounce definitive judgment on the donor-intent preservation measures described above. With the assistance of Christy Morse and others, Ms. Cargill seems to have deliberated carefully about what steps she could take while still alive to explain her wishes for how her money would be spent—that’s the first step in preserving donor intent.

In the case of Akaloa and Anne Ray, Ms. Cargill named in advance a precise group of eligible grantee organizations—a strong, additional way to defend her donor intent. MACF represents other approaches to embedding donor intent in a foundation, through the formalization of Margaret Cargill’s understanding of philanthropy into an internal guiding document, and the steps taken by Christy Morse after Cargill’s death to integrate the founder’s spirit into the organization’s operations and offices.

Although the full contours of the restrictions Ms. Cargill may have imposed on the use of her money have not been made public, she seems to have laid down at least some formal limitations, such as preferring to fund community-level work over policy-level work.

It would be fascinating to know what specifically Ms. Cargill said about this distinction between community-level versus policy-level philanthropy. Why did she make this distinction? How did she come to this conclusion?

Margaret A. Cargill was an exceptionally generous individual who set aside more than $7 billion to fund a variety of charitable causes. The sheer scale of her vision is such that her thinking deserves to be better known. It will find a ready audience with the media, the public, other heirs or heiresses thinking of setting up their own endowments, and the nonprofit community generally, not to mention the many people who will be helped by her foundations and may wish to know more about her.
One hopes that over time MACF will make public more of Ms. Cargill’s specific intentions and restrictions, rather than keeping them private. The additional information about Ms. Cargill’s intentions would help us understand, for example, grants like the $20,000 in “operations support” that MACF provided in 2012 to Compassion and Choices in Denver, Colorado, a pro-assisted suicide organization; or the $201,000 MACF provided to the same group in 2011. Or the $585,000 MACF provided to Population Services International in 2011 for its global population control efforts.

The more openly and widely that Ms. Cargill’s wishes are known, the easier it will be to integrate them into MACF’s operations and public posture. And, perhaps, the easier it will be for it to recruit staff and trustees who will enter the organization prepared to respect and uphold those wishes, rather than push them aside.

Let MACF, and the Philanthropies as a group, be open about their “automatic boundaries,” to quote Morse’s useful phrase. Turn those boundaries into a competitive advantage, so that the Philanthropies can recruit strong staff candidates who happen to also personally identify with the group’s mission and values.

Incorporating Ms. Cargill’s personal effects into the office ambience is a thoughtful touch. But protecting donor intent at the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies is ultimately going to hinge less on the display of her art and furniture, and more on how carefully Ms. Cargill’s “automatic boundaries” are embedded into her philanthropies’ corporate body language, hiring, and operations.

Neil Maghami, a freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to CRC publications.


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