Confused by Cargill? Join the Club, And Read This Primer

Ever since the announcement a few years ago that Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies had received a windfall, becoming one of the largest foundations in the U.S., any number of NGOs have been dreaming of that big Cargill grant—while scratching their heads trying to figure the place out. 

People are confused for good reason. Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies is a confusing entity, composed of three separate foundations with distinct mandates and separate pots of money. It's also still new, and very much a work in progress—with a super-deliberative, time-consuming process underway to establish grantmaking programs. Oh, and they don't accept unsolicited proposals or make it easy for grantseekers to figure out what's what. 

None of this stems from any arrogance or rudeness on the part of those entrusted with Margaret A. Cargill's fortune. They seem to be doing the best job they can. But it's been a complicated philanthropic undertaking, to say the least. 

So herewith a short primer on what's going on here, and how the legions of grantseekers hankering for Cargill cash should handle themselves. 

Margaret Anne Cargill was the granddaughter of W.W. Cargill, the founder of the Midwest agricultural giant, and one of the eight heirs to the Cargill fortune. She got interested in philanthropy late in life. But she wanted to give anonymously, so she started a foundation called the Akaloa Resource Foundation in 1995.

Akaloa is a so-called "supporting organization," and only gives to a set of grantees that Ms. Cargill designated as beneficiaries—over a dozen  organizations, mainly in southern California, where Ms. Cargill lived for much of her life. 

In other words, forget about hitting up Akaloa for a grant. 

After a while, Ms. Cargill decided she wanted to expand her giving and, for various reasons, found it easier to create a second anonymous foundation in 1996: the Anne Ray Charitable Trust. This, too, is a supporting organization (the biggest ever) with a limited set of beneficiaries that were designated by Ms. Cargill before her death. Named beneficiaries include some very big outfits such as The Nature Conservancy, the YMCA of the USA, PBS, and the American National Red Cross International Services Division. It is possible, but not easy, for the foundation to add additional beneficiaries given its legal structure. 

The named beneficiaries of Anne Ray are now sitting pretty, since nearly half of Margaret A. Cargill's fortune ended up in this entity, and it has assets of over $3 billion. That's big money, with not so many mouths to feed. The Nature Conservancy and PBS are doing particularly well, with multi-million annual support from Anne Ray in recent years. 

As for the rest of the NGO universe: Just put the Anne Ray Charitable Trust out of your mind. That money is spoken for, by and large. 

Which brings us to the last of the three foundations, and the one beacon of hope for outside grantseekers: the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation. This was created by Ms. Cargill to launch after her death (she died in 2006) and to operate with none of the strictures of her other two foundations. It holds slightly less than half of the fortune left by Ms. Cargill, and the trustees and staff are fully in the driver's seat of this foundation. 

So the thing to keep in mind is that while people originally heard that a new $6-7 billion foundation was established with Margaret Cargill's fortune, for all practical purposes it's really just the Margaret A. Foundation, with assets under $3 billion, that matters to anyone. 

What's unusual about the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, and this operation as a whole, is that it's run by leaders who worked very closely with the donor and seem determined to channel her wishes. Ms. Cargill spent a lot of time near the end of her life declaring how she wanted her money used, and laying out very specific guidelines about her primary interests. The two people she worked with, Christine Morse and Paul Busch, are now running Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies as CEO and President respectively. They are also both trustees. (We wrote earlier about Morse and Busch here.)

While Cargill's two leaders come from financial backgrounds, with deep connections to Ms. Cargill, they quickly recruited a top philanthropic leader, Terry Meersman (who we've also written about, here).

These folks have had their hands full for years sorting out Ms. Cargill's estate, and then figuring out what programs to fund. This second task they have handled with impressive rigor, through a lengthy and continuing process. Ms. Cargill said generally what she wanted to fund with her new post-mortem foundation; she didn't say exactly how or where or by whom her money should be used. That's been up to the trustees and staff, and figuring out these details, and the best way to add value in a number of funding areas, has been a huge lift. Some programs, like the environmental one, are fully developed. Others are still being formulated.

So all we can say is: Be patient.