July 23, 2013

Ensuring the Goals of a Benefactor Live On: How Christy Morse Leads the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies

When the Chronicle of Philanthropy listed its Top 50 donors for 2011, Margaret A. Cargill, an heir to the Cargill Corporation agribusiness fortune who passed away in 2006, landed at the top spot.

By: The Bridgespan Group
Christy-Morse_198x135.jpgWhen the Chronicle of Philanthropy listed its Top 50 donors for 2011, Margaret A. Cargill, an heir to the Cargill Corporation agribusiness fortune who passed away in 2006, landed at the top spot. That spotlight honored her donation of approximately $6 billion, which would be given to the Anne Ray Charitable Trust and the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, but it was a spotlight that would not have been possible while Cargill was alive.

Indeed, although Cargill gave away more than $200 million during her lifetime, she made her donations on strict conditions of anonymity. During her life Cargill quietly worked to protect animals, preserve the environment, aid those affected by disasters, enhance the quality of life for seniors, promote the arts, and provide other meaningful societal assistance. Today her legacy is being honored with more public philanthropy—made possible only because Cargill allowed for Christy Morse, now CEO of the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, and other trusted advisors to learn and document her intent.

Morse discusses capturing Cargill's legacy
Ensuring Margaret Cargill's spirit lives on
Cargill Philanthropies is the umbrella for Cargill’s three grantmaking organizations—the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, the Anne Ray Charitable Trust, and the Akaloa Resource Foundation—whose common mission is to provide meaningful assistance and support to society, the arts, and the environment. Morse has worked hard to make sure that Cargill's spirit and intent would be carried on after her passing. That manifestation is physical. For example, take the Cargill Foundation, which was established after Cargill's passing (as was the umbrella organization that bears her name). The foundation headquarters honors Cargill with its adherence to environmentally green standards (which Morse says has earned it a LEED gold designation); photos of Cargill that symbolize her passions decorate the office; and meaningful furniture and decorative aspects like Cargill's stained glass create a warm atmosphere. Yet, it is Morse's focus on ensuring that Cargill's spirit is carried out in grantmaking and leadership that truly shines, a focus that comes from a deep personal connection.

Morse was employed by Cargill, Inc., and later by Waycrosse, Inc., the family office for many of the Cargill shareholders. While at the latter, Morse began a correspondence with the notoriously private Cargill, eventually meeting her and forming an instant friendship. “We became fast friends practically from the very first meeting…I probably spent 11 or 12 hours with her just because we were having so much fun,” says Morse. “So we really personally connected before we actually got involved in any kind of business or philanthropy discussions.”

During Cargill’s life, Morse carried out the benefactor’s funding to organizations like the San Diego Humane Society, the American Red Cross, The Nature Conservancy and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian through the Akaloa Resource Foundation and the Anne Ray Charitable Trust, making sure that the donor’s name was kept anonymous and that the spotlight was kept on the nonprofits doing the work. Such a strategy—Cargill’s anonymous funding in response to current needs—was clearly only possible while she was alive.

Capturing Cargill's guiding principles for perpetuity
Today, many high-profile philanthropists are choosing to spend down rather give in perpetuity, but in the event that a donor chooses the latter, the importance of capturing clear and flexible donor intent is imperative. This is just what Morse did. Morse, along with another close friend of Cargill, pushed for conversations around what should happen in the future. “[Margaret] would always say to me, ‘Well, honey, you know what I want to do, just go do it,' and my response would be that I was going to die too and her funding and her good works could continue on in perpetuity,” says Morse. “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.” Cargill assented, and Morse brought in tax advisers Paul Busch and Naomi Horshager, who worked with Cargill to document her charitable goals and guiding principles. Over the course of many months and going back and forth to get Cargill’s feedback and final approval, Morse says the team captured guiding principles on matters such as interest areas, values, and intentions for future trustees and future leaders, including what qualities they would have. Just as important, the team documented areas Cargill would not want to fund.

The insistence on getting Cargill’s wishes to guide her legacy has proved invaluable. When the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies and the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation were established after Cargill's passing, they quickly drew attention for their sizable endowments. (Cargill allowed for these to bear her name and for the disclosure of previously anonymous funding after her death.) In 2011, the first full year of operation for the Cargill Foundation, it gave away $136 million, putting it on the map with such longstanding organizations as the 100-year-old Rockefeller Foundation. Again and again, Morse has turned to her personal knowledge of Cargill as well as the documents detailing Cargill's guiding principles to determine what Cargill would want. For example, at the Cargill Foundation, "we've tried to keep Margaret's focus not only from a topical area but her desire to work closely and deeply with organizations," says Morse. "So, rather than accepting applications from across the country, we identify those organizations we want to work with, and we hope that over a longer period of time...we're able to identify even better." In addition, Busch and Horshager were brought in as some of the first hires for the Cargill Philanthropies; Busch is now President and Horshager is now CFO and Treasurer. Morse says these hires were key: She 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 on creating a philanthropic legacy that stands the test of time

Moving forward, looking back
As the guiding force for Cargill's vision, Morse has embarked on a steep philanthropic learning curve, one that she says has been helped tremendously by the openness and generosity in the philanthropic community. But it is to Cargill's core values that Morse turns to for her North Star. That Morse knows Cargill's core values as well as she does is a key lesson for the philanthropic community: For donors, it underscores the importance of getting clear on core values and conveying those to others. For staff, it highlights the idea that working to understand a philanthropist's values cannot be overstated. If Morse could turn back the clock, she would have worked even harder at this than she already did.

"Knowing what I know today about the topics that [Margaret] was interested in and the issues that she was interested in, I would perhaps spend more time with her talking about underlying kinds of themes and beliefs, and less about what was happening at the very moment," says Morse. "Because I think it's those values and those underlying beliefs that are going to see this organization through."

Christy Morse's Key Messages for Philanthropists

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