The Environment is a Top Interest of One of America's Richest, and Most Private, Families

If you're raising money for environmental causes, you obviously want to be looking at who's giving big today. But you also want to look at who has both the capacity and passion to give big tomorrow.

By this logic, the Mars family should definitely be on the radar. We're talking about the three heirs to the Mars candy and food fortune -- Jacqueline, Forrest, and John Mars, who together are worth $60 billion.

Right now, Mars family philanthropy may not be much to talk about. (We wrote about the big picture of Mars giving here.) At the end of 2012, the Mars Foundation held $15 million in assets and gave away a mere $741,000 in grants that year. But individual family members have also made a number of large gifts outside the foundation. And a close look at all Mars giving shows that family members have a clear interest in conservation. They also have a strong interest in animals and wildlife, which we've written about here.

Here are three things you need to know about the Mars family's giving for the environment.

1. They Don't Just Give in their Region

A quick run-down of recent gifts by the Mars Foundation, which is located in McLean, Virginia but has neither staff nor a website, reveals that the family is attuned to environmental issues in the mid-Atlantic region, but not exclusively so. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation landed a $30,000 grant in 2012 and the Student Conservation Association got a similar sized grant. In 2011, groups receiving Mars' money included Eco Health Alliance in New York and the Environmental Defense Fund. Groups getting smaller checks included the Nature Conservancy, Galapagos Foundation, Potomac Conservancy, and Rocky Mountain Natural Research Center. 

It's worth pausing on that last grantee, because it likely reflects the fact that John and Forrest Mars both live in Wyoming, where conservation and ecology issues are very much in contention. Forrest Mars Jr. has also gone generously to the Fund for Lake George, the upstate New York lake where he owns a vacation home.

2. It's Not Just Their Foundation

Separate from the foundation, over the years the Mars heirs have made gifts to such organizations as the National Park Foundation and Wilderness Society, among others. Jacqueline Mars has also been a steady giver to the League of Conservation Voters and has given as well as to the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund. Both groups are 501(c)4s that work to elect politicians who are friendly to environmental causes.

3. It Could Be Just Starting

Jacqueline Mars is the youngest of the three Mars heirs, at 74, and so this trio of mega billionaires is surely giving much thought to estate planning. The Mars family has funded lobbying efforts to repeal the estate tax and our guess is that it will turn to philanthropic vehicles to avoid having to sell family stakes in Mars, Inc., a privately held company, when the heirs start to pass.

Quite apart from that concern, it's hard to imagine that bigger chunks of the Mars fortune won't start going to philanthropy. And even if only a sliver of this money goes to pump up the Mars Foundation, it could easily become one of the bigger foundations in the United States. There's little question that the environment would be a major program any such enlarged Mars Foundation.

As we said at the start of this article: Environmental fundraisers should keep a close eye on the Mars family.