Margaret A. Cargill Foundation: Grants for Conservation

OVERVIEW: The Margaret A. Cargill Foundation has a huge cash reserve and shares it with a wide variety of programs and organizations, with one major program in environmental conservation. Subprograms are mostly place-based, with an emphasis on marine habitats and forests. Grantees include initiatives in Canada, the Pacific islands, and Asia, among other locales.

IP TAKE: Cargill is still very new on the scene, still solidifying its programs, and does not accept unrequested proposals at all. It’s a tough one, but top organizations working in its priority locales stand to find a wealthy and powerful new supporter.

PROFILE: The Midwestern grain heiress Margaret Cargill quietly gave away millions of dollars over her lifetime to causes she deemed worthy, and following her death in 2006, the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation was established to carry on in her name. To be clear, Cargill actually left her fortune to three funders, forming Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies. But two of the foundations are essentially spoken for, with the M.A.C. Foundation the only one with competitive programs to speak of.

The foundation is still very new and a bit elusive. Four years after Cargill’s passing, it began making huge waves in U.S. and international philanthropy, with assets around $3 billion and grants reaching $141 million in its second year of substantive giving. The following year leveled out a bit to $38 million, but all signs point to Cargill as one of the country’s most active and influential funders from here on. 

The foundation has seven different program areas, one of which is the environment, but also arts; families, children, the elderly; animals; disasters aid; and planned health. This reflects the founder’s wishes, as Ms. Cargill supported all of the above causes, and the foundation has been set up to continue very closely along the lines of her interests as a living donor. It’s almost operating like a living donor foundation, in fact. It’s run by two of her most trusted financial advisors during her lifetime.

And Cargill was an avid fan of the outdoors, in particular.

On the environment front, Margaret A. Cargill’s trustees show much interest in marine habitat protection and the conservation of both tropical rain forests and boreal forest regions. Most grant recipients are well-established, well-funded operations that have multiple ongoing partnerships with other nonprofits, foundations, public officials, and businesses. The strategy involves balancing biodiversity and human needs, involving community organizations, and focusing on a limited number of places so they can have the largest impact possible. 

Of the five geographic focuses the foundation has outlined, there are two that primarily involve marine habitats in the Pacific—the Sunda-Banda Seascape and the Micronesia Challenge. [For more on these programs, we recommend IP’s guide to Cargill’s Grants for Marine and Rivers Conservation.]

Another regional conservation program for the foundation is the Great Bear and Tongass Coast, an area of temperate rainforest in Alaska and British Columbia home to diverse marine populations and thick forests teeming with carnivores like gray wolves and grizzly bears. The program includes both support for the marine habitats and two forests in the region, and tends to be interested in involving indigenous communities. 

And the other main conservation program is centered on REDD+ for tropical forests. Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation refers to the practice of supporting communities and nations that are not wiping out forests as a strategy for combatting global warming. The approach attempts to create economic incentives for countries with tropical forests to maintain them instead of cutting them down for other industries. Cargill is part of the Climate and Land Use Alliance, a philanthropic coalition that works deals with such forest and agriculture based solutions to greenhouse gas emissions. 

There’s one other subprogram to note, which is Environment Education - Youth Camping. This is a quirky little initiative to get kids outdoors, especially in youth multi-day camps, in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Wisconsin. The goal is to not only help kids and improve access to such nature-based recreation, but to build a connection between the next generation and the land, promoting good stewardship.

Finally it’s important to note that while the environment program is pretty well-defined, there are a lot of grants going to projects that don’t seem to quite fit into these boxes. 

Part of this funding might just be a symptom of a relatively new philanthropy getting its footing. But it’s also a reminder that Cargill is still something of a wild card. With the level of giving on the table here, we can expect to see a lot of really interesting grants emerging.

But there’s a catch: Cargill does not accept unsolicited applications, no exceptions. Instead, its funds go toward organizations that staffers personally select. The foundation’s Trustees and their network of consultants track nonprofit groups across the country and locate those whose operations appear to them to be closest to Margaret Cargill’s wishes. A select few will get a phone call, but it’s not likely to be a surprise, as grants of this caliber typically involve a lot of networking and collaboration. To make an inquiry, you can email the foundation.

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