Exploring Planet Mars: Where Will That $60 Billion Candy Fortune End Up?

As much as we're interested in the here-and-now of philanthropy, things promise to get much more interesting down the line as the vast fortunes of a Second Gilded Age are more fully harnessed to giving. Just consider that 35 Americans have fortunes bigger than the endowment of the Ford Foundation.

And here's the thing: Many of these mega billionaires are getting older. The average age of Forbes 400 members is 65; quite a few are over 80. Which is why we spend a lot of time here at IP looking at what will happen with big fortunes in coming years.

Few piles of money intrigue us more than the $60 billion controlled by the three heirs to the Mars candy fortune.

Why? Because (a) this is among the largest family fortunes in the world; (b) the Mars family is one of the most private billionaire families you'll find; (c) none of the three—John, Jacqueline, and Forrest Mars, Jr.— have signed the Giving Pledge; (d) there's a bunch of kids in the picture who are also very private; (e) the heirs are all getting up there in age (Jacqueline, at 74, is the youngest of the three); and (f) the public record on Mars family philanthropy is very thin and little has been written about their giving.

In short, planet Mars is unexplored. So let's check it out.

Private Family, Private Company

Maybe the first thing to know is that one reason the Mars family is so private is because Mars, Inc., is a privately held company—the fifth largest in the United States, with 72,000 employees and many billions in revenues (it's a misnomer to call it a candy company, since Mars long ago diversified into lots of areas).

One basic question is how and whether the three Mars heirs, who are each worth about $20 billion, might be able to sell some of their stake in the company if they did want to turn to large-scale philanthropy. This is a crucial issue, because maintaining family control of Mars, Inc., means not turning over large equity shares to outsiders. And sometimes there are elaborate legal structures in place to prevent family members from selling off their equity.

So it's quite possible that the big Mars money will remain off the table for philanthropy when the three Mars heirs die. On other hand, the threat of estate taxes on some portion of Mars family wealth is likely to incentivize major philanthropic giving (despite the well-known efforts of the Mars family and other wealth families to repeal that tax). Bottom line: Our bet is that a pretty big chunk of Mars money will eventually be directed to philanthropy. And even if it's only, say, a fifth of the total family fortune, we could see a new foundation roughly the size of the Ford Foundation emerge.

The Mars Foundation

The Mars heirs don't have to start a foundation because they already have one: The Mars Foundation, which shares a mailing address with Mars, Inc., in McLean, Viriginia. It's not much of a foundation, with no website and no apparent staff. It held just $15 million in assets at the end of 2012 and that year, gave away a mere $741,000 in grants. While contributions to the foundation came from Mars, Inc., it doesn't appear to be a corporate foundation in the traditional sense as it is clearly controlled by John, Jacqueline, and Forrest, who made up three of the five directors as of 2012.

The foundation gives to a long list of grantees ever year, and small though the grants have been, they offer important hints as to what these folks are into. Other hints come from studying the gifts that have been made by individual Mars heirs.

Environmentalists will be pleased to know that the Mars Foundation has been giving steadily in recent years to conservation and wildlife groups. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation landed a $30,000 grant in 2012 and the Student Conservation Association got a similar sized grant. Groups getting smaller checks included the Nature Conservancy, Galapagos Foundation, Potomac Conservancy, and Rocky Mountain Natural Research Center.

Animal and wildlife groups have also received steady but modest support, with grants going to the World Wildlife Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, Canine Companions for Independence, and the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

The nature and animal connection is not so surprising, since John and Forrest Mars both live in Wyoming, and Jacqueline is an equestrian who lives in Virginia horse country. When and if the Mars family steps into big time philanthropy, protecting the natural world is likely to be a major focus.

At the same time, their giving through the foundation points to an interest in the arts and a concern for the less fortunate. Money has gone to various human service nonprofits in the DC and Virginia area that provide food, help foster youth, and increase opportunities for African American kids. (Mars, Inc., has also made some substantial gifts to address food insecurity.)

Grants have also gone to support the theater and dance. The single biggest grant in 2012 went to the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts, which educates small children using music, drama, and movement.

So that's the foundation. Of course, many wealthy people choose to direct their giving through channels other than their foundations, so there's no telling how much money has quietly been given away by the Mars heirs through direct gifts. The biggest gift we know about is the $23 million that Forrest Mars, Jr., gave to build an education center at Fort Ticonderoga, a historic site of the Revolutionary War.

Forrest is clearly a history and preservation buff, because he's also made substantial gifts for similar projects. Most notably, he gave nearly $15 million to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation between 2008 and 2010. Mars, Inc., also gave $5 million to the Smithsonian in 2012. John is into this stuff, too, since he's also given big to the Smithsonian and supported the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.

Looking back further in time, John and Forrest gave $2 million to Yale to establish an endowed professorship in ethics, politics, and economics. John also once gave $5 million to Wheaton College, which his wife attended. Forrest Mars has given several million to the Lake George Land Conservancy, in New York State.

As for Jacqueline Mars, she's chair of the Washington National Opera, although it's hard to say how much money she's given here, since no big gifts to WNO are going through the foundation. But Kennedy Center annual reports over the years show nearly a half dozen $1 million gifts coming from the Mars family.

In the political sphere, Jackie Mars has also been a steady giver to the League of Conservation Voters, yet another indication that she cares a lot about environmental issues. But she and her brothers have also given to the Republican Party, and Jackie supported John McCain with donations in 2008. Interestingly, Mars, Inc., made a $1 million gift to the Rainforest Alliance in 2009.

Overall, the picture that emerges here is of three Mars heirs that clearly do have strong interests and have been engaged in steady philanthropy, albeit on a scale that's miniscule compared to their net worth. Looking ahead, we could imagine a scaled-up Mars Foundation with big programs on the environment, wildlife, the arts, and human services.

The Kids

In gaming out Mars family philanthropy, we can't ignore the kids, since they may well be the ones who operationalize large-scale giving down the line. The three Mars heirs have 10 children between them, mainly in their forties and fifties.

What are these kids into? That's hard to say, since they are very low profile. None of them are on the Mars Foundation board or involved in other nonprofits that we can see.

So we end this piece with a question mark about the next generation that's likely to be holding the purse strings of the Mars Foundation. 

***

This article was prepared using DonorSearch.net, a great resource for research and prospecting.