Get Big Fast: Terry Meersman Scales Up Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies

What should a small foundation do that suddenly gets a vast windfall and needs to scale up fast and start spending $300 million a year?

Hire somebody like Terry Meersman, who had tackled a similar challenge before.

Meersman was a top executive at the Gates Foundation between 1998 and 2001, when Bill and Melinda turned to philanthropy in a major way and their foundation scaled up faster than any philanthropic enterprise in history. Following that job, he helped set up the Virginia G. Piper Trust, which started with over $500 million in assets.

Even before these two positions, Meersman was already an experienced NGO executive. The Gates Foundation described Meersman this way in 1999:

Terry Meersman brings 22 years of program and management experience with several nonprofit organizations, including Save the Children Federation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and World Learning. While at Save the Children, Meersman held several positions including director of refugee programs, executive vice president/chief operating officer and served as acting president during a change in organizational leadership. As venture fund officer for Pew Charitable Trusts, Meersman helped restructure a major grantmaking program in population and environment, and designed a new grantmaking strategy for a program designed to transform young adults into active global citizens. Meersman served as Director of Policy Analysis for the Seattle City Council, directing the 12-member policy group that developed policy recommendations for council members on issues affecting citizens.

This extensive experience made Meersman exactly the person that the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthhropies* needed in 2010 as it emerged as a new $6 billion foundation -- among the largest in America -- as a result of bequest from Margaret Cargill, an heiress to the Cargill Corporation fortune who died in 2006. Meersman started his new job at the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthhropies, in the Twin Cities, in December 2010.

Giving away a few hundred million dollars a year -- and having impact with that money -- is harder than it sounds. Margaret Cargill stipulated that her estate would be used to support work in seven different areas, including aging, disaster relief, the environment, and children and families. Of course, though, there is lots of giving already in all of these areas, so a key challenge for Meersman and the foundation's leadership has been to figure out how new money could make a difference.

One of the foundation's first steps was to hire a consulting firm with deep experience in philanthropy to help undertake a multi-year review of who is doing what in each of the areas and start setting some giving priorities for Cargill. This process focused first on the environment, a core concern of Margaret Cargill, who had been an avid oudoors person. “We want to know what’s going on in the field as a whole, who the experts are, and where we might get involved in filling some gaps," Meersman told the Minnesota Council of Foundations last year.

The consultants put together a big picture paper looking at work the foundation might do on the environment. Meersman then convened a panel of experts to narrow down the options for possible grantmaking. The next step was recommending a plan to the foundation's board of trustees.

With a plan of giving in place, the foundation identified the grantees it wanted to submit proposals. In other words, Cargill asks you -- you don't ask them.

*Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies is the umbrella name for several trusts: the Anne Ray Charitable Trust, the Akaloa Foundation, and the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation. All these entities share the same leadership and we treat them as a single entity in this and other posts.