Meet the Two People Who Manage Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies

Who's running the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies*, and what makes them get up in the morning? That's an important question as the Minnesota-based foundation takes its place as one of the largest foundations in the U.S., with assets of over $6 billion and annual giving up to $300 million.

Margaret Cargill was the grand-daugther of William W. Cargill, founder of the Cargill Co., one of the nation's largest privately held firms. She died in 2006, but not before specifying that her estate would be used to support work in seven different areas, including the arts, the environment, disaster relief, and children and families. How this broad mandate is interpreted, exactly, will make a huge difference for nonprofits across the United States -- and so the vision of Cargill's leaders should be of acute interest.

That's all the more true because Margaret Cargill was never married and left no heirs to carry out her wishes.

Margaret Cargill Philanthropies is run by Christine Morse,  a former finance executive at the Cargill Corporation who later took a job at Waycrosse, the company’s financial arm, which managed the assets of many lead shareholders and family members. Morse is a Certified Financial Planner and holds a BA degree in accounting from Gustavus Adolphus College, in St. Peter, Minnesota, where she has also served on the Business Advisory Council and the Board of Trustees. Paul G. Busch, the foundation's president and second in command, also has a financial background. A CPA, he was a senior tax partner at Deloitte Tax LLP and, earlier, at Arthur Andersen.

The most important thing to know about the leadership team at Cargill is how close they were to Margaret Cargill when she was still alive. Morse got to know Margaret some twenty years ago while working for Waycrosse. She became deeply involved in helping her map out her philanthropic strategy and manage her fortune. Morse introduced her to Busch, who became her tax advisor and played a hands-on role in working with her to "document her charitable goals and guiding principles," according to the Minnesota Council of Foundations.

Cargill was actively involved in philanthropic giving during her lifetime and had strong views about how her estate should be used after her death. Busch met with Cargill often over nine months to record all her wishes and helped capture them in a report he prepared for the foundation's board. He later said that he never imagined that he'd be involved in implementing those wishes.

Among giant foundations, the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies is unusual in having leaders who worked so closely with the donor and see their mandate as implementing her vision. One challenge in this case is that Margaret Cargill insisted on covering such a broad array of areas with her post-life giving and she's not around to guide the inevitable whittling down of priorities that must occur if the foundation is to have maximum impact.

Not much is known about the interests and preferences that Morse and Busch bring to this job. What most distinguishes their leadership so far is their tenacity in sorting out Cargill's estate, establishing a new architecture for giving away her wealth, and creating a process for developing programs. Among their important moves was hiring Terry Meersman to become vice president for programs in late 2010.

Meersman is a veteran of the philanthropy field who has been through this kind of process before, including helping to scale up the Gates Foundation as a key executive there for three years, starting in 1998.

At Cargill, Meersman has presided over an extensive planning process that involved consulting with numerous outsider experts to identify how the foundation could best have impact in its issues areas. The environment was the first area of focus, and after extensive consultations, the foundation is now rolling out large-scale grantmaking around land-use and preserving coral reefs.

As with Morse and Busch, Meersman doesn't appear to bring his own strong agenda or particular area of expertise to the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies. What he does bring a talent for putting in places strong organizational processes and spending a lot of money fast. Which is exactly what this foundation needs right now.

*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.