Photo by Cameron Wittig
T wenty years ago, Bruce Karstadt, president of the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, received a call from a woman named Christine Morse. She brought welcome news: She represented a wealthy benefactor who wished to support the museum. But there was one condition, Morse noted: The donor had to remain anonymous. Not even Karstadt would learn her name.
“We’d received gifts from individuals who met with us and asked that their gift be kept anonymous,” the administrator recalls. “But this was very different. We didn’t even know the donor. I’d never had an experience like that.”
The secret benefactor made a $5,000 contribution, followed by additional donations totaling more than $1 million over the next two decades. But Karstadt never met the woman who funded numerous exhibits, capital projects, and outreach programs at the institute. Her proxy, Morse—a petite woman who dressed conservatively, wore her hair in a pageboy, and spoke with the care and caution that seemed to befit her training in accounting—was tight-lipped about the source of the largesse.
Only in 2006 did Karstadt discover that the donor was Margaret Anne Cargill, one of America’s wealthiest individuals. The granddaughter of grain-storage magnate W.W. Cargill and an heir to the fortune generated by the company he established in 1865, Margaret was one of a small circle who saw their net worth rocket as Minnetonka-based Cargill Inc. grew into a highly profitable international agribusiness giant (last year the company raked in $136.7 billion in revenue). In 2005, the year before she passed at age 85, Forbes ranked her among the “World’s Richest People,” estimating her wealth at $1.8 billion.
Unmarried and childless, Margaret Cargill willed her entire pile to charity. Karstadt was pleased to hear from Morse that his organization was among nine nonprofits, including the American Red Cross, the Nature Conservancy, the YMCA, and PBS, that would benefit in perpetuity from the heiress’s generosity.
But it was arguably Morse, the proxy, who reaped the greatest reward—and responsibility—in the wake of Cargill’s death. Named an executor of her estate, Morse, age 60, now oversees three charitable funds with assets totaling $6.9 billion. The newest one, the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, established in 2007, became Minnesota’s largest foundation almost upon inception (pushing aside the longtime leader, the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation) and has poured millions into the coffers of local nonprofits as its grant-making has revved up. It currently ranks 21st in asset size among American endowments, according to the New York–based Foundation Center. (Considered collectively, the three funds would place eighth, outranking foundations established by the Packards, MacArthurs, and Rockefellers.)
Morse, however, eschews the limelight. Like the woman she once represented, she prefers a low profile. “I would not come to you and say, ‘Do an article about me.’ That’s just not our philosophy,” she noted on a recent afternoon at the Eden Prairie headquarters of Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies. “Margaret used to say to me, ‘All I have is the money. That isn’t doing the good work.’”
A RELUCTANT HEIRESS
Morse’s office is filled with things Margaret Cargill once owned. There are textiles, photographs, a pair of overstuffed chairs. The door itself—with a handcrafted brass handle and inlaid with stained glass—once welcomed visitors to Cargill’s home in La Jolla, California.
Framed pictures of Cargill overlook Morse’s desk. In the photos, the benefactress has a toothy smile, welcoming eyes, and a pillow of white hair. She wears a bright blue blouse—one of her favorite colors—and has a silver-turquoise necklace of Native American origin around her throat. Her face is lined and deeply tanned in the manner of any longtime Californian.
“When I first got to know her, she was still out in her RV camping with friends up in the mountains,” Morse recalls, turning to look at the images. “She did that well into her 70s. She kept that love of the outdoors and being among the pine trees and out in the desert her whole life.”
Morse now refers to Cargill as “one of my best friends” and has the stories to support it. They shared a love of textile arts, the outdoors, and Nordic-American traditions. “She was around Scandinavian people in her youth and loved that and the things that I had experienced in my youth,” Morse says. “So even though we were quite far apart in age, we certainly had a lot of similar interests.” It was not, however, an instant connection.
The daughter of a small businessman who made a living selling equipment used in potato farming, Christine Morse (née Christy Anderson) grew up in tiny Braham, an hour’s drive north of the Twin Cities. When she was 16, the family moved to Washington State, where Morse met her future husband. The two eventually returned to Minnesota to attend Gustavus Adolphus College, where she earned an accounting degree. In 1977, she was accepted into a management-training program at Cargill Inc.
The executive ranks were dominated by men, and Morse encountered many hurdles and found few mentors. “My experience was not always easy, but it was instructive,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “I think there were challenges that my male counterparts didn’t always face but it taught me a lot.”
In 1991, after holding several posts in divisions ranging from corn milling to risk management and taking a year off to teach accounting at her alma mater, Morse moved to Cargill’s family office, a personal holding company that handles tax, legal, insurance, and investment issues for the small ring of family members who own an estimated 90 percent of Cargill stock. Among the clients eventually assigned to Morse was Margaret Cargill. “I started communicating with her right away, but she was not working closely with the family office,” Morse says, remembering the long stretch of unanswered calls and correspondence. “Actually, it took her a year and half to respond.”
Though born in Los Angeles in 1920, Cargill spent much of her childhood in the Midwest. She attended a private Episcopal school in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and earned a degree in art education from the University of Minnesota in 1954. Though her father, Austen, and her brother, James, both served as senior executives at Cargill, Margaret never played a part in the business. Instead, she road-tripped across the country in a convertible, cultivated an avid interest in indigenous art, and learned how to weave and work with fabrics. In the mid-1950s, she moved to California, where even her closest friends seemed unaware of her wealth.
“She wanted to stay under the radar and live a non-glitzy kind of life,” Morse says. “Part of the way she did that was to disconnect from everything that was high-profile here in Minnesota.”
But Morse was persistent, determined to connect with her client. In 1993, she booked a flight to Southern California and sent a letter to Cargill, letting her know the dates of her trip and her hotel. To her surprise, Cargill phoned shortly after her arrival. “She called me up and said, ‘I’ll pick you up in half an hour. Be out front,’” Morse recalls. “She was in her 70s, but she charged up in her Jeep and called out, ‘Climb in!’” They spent the day touring La Jolla. “She had read all my letters, so she certainly knew a lot about me going into it,” Morse recalls. Over the course of the next few days, Morse and Cargill began a series of conversations that would take a lifetime to finish—and then some.
GIVING WITHOUT GLITZ
In the late 1990s, the Right Reverend John Bryson Chane, dean of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in San Diego, California, was working in his office when his secretary informed him that an unexpected visitor had arrived and insisted on seeing him. Chane invited the woman—modestly dressed, with white hair—into his office and asked what he could do to assist.
“She said, ‘No, I’m here to help you,’” Chane recalls. She handed him an envelope and vanished.
“I didn’t even open it,” Chane remembers. “I made the very bad assumption that this person was not all there. I put the envelope in a desk drawer and left it there for maybe a week or so, until I opened up the drawer and found it again. I opened it up and there was a cashier’s check for $50,000.”
Such was Margaret Cargill’s style of giving—spontaneous, sporadic, and surreptitious—until she met Morse. She occasionally sent checks to causes she supported, but she dreaded the spotlight that might come with large-scale philanthropy. And to some extent, Morse says, the heiress didn’t know how much she had to give. “She wasn’t a numbers person. She was an art person,” Morse says. “Money really wasn’t that important to her. If she had enough, then she had enough. She wasn’t one to go out and buy diamonds and gold. She would go out to buy a piece of artwork made by a Hopi woman or a piece of silk that was hand-dyed. She didn’t need millions of dollars to live her lifestyle.”
But with Morse as her proxy, Cargill began funneling money into causes she supported: the Salvation Army, elder care, public television stations, the Smithsonian’s American Indian museum. The heiress occasionally mingled among the crowds celebrating the opening of an art exhibit she supported or a building she had funded. But she never outed herself to the beneficiaries or took public credit for her success, Morse says. A row of donor portraits at the San Diego Humane Society features a picture not of Cargill, but, at her request, her dog Kari.
GLOBAL THINKING, LOCAL ACTIONS
The conversation that Cargill and Morse began in 1993 eventually yielded seven areas for philanthropic support: relief and resilience work, the environment, arts and culture, aging services, animal welfare, health care, and children and family services. But the complexities of building a from-scratch foundation that can service such diverse sectors has taken considerable time and effort. Grant-making is already underway in five of the seven areas, says Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies president Paul G. Busch. But its programs in health care and children and family services are just getting off the ground.
Part of the complexity in getting things up and running is financial. Since Cargill Inc. is privately owned, Margaret’s investments had to be swapped for stock from Mosaic, a publicly traded subsidiary, before they could be liquidated.
But hiring has also been an issue. Morse and her staff have sought out experts in the fields they intend to cover—and sifting through résumés, conducting interviews, and wooing employees to the Twin Cities has taken time.
And then there’s the challenge of covering seven diverse areas of giving—often with international dimensions. The foundation has invested heavily, for example, in the development of an affordable oral cholera vaccine that can be used in south Sudan and other far-flung regions of the world. Its environmental division has taken a leading role in preventing overfishing of marine areas while supporting the economies of local communities in the Indonesian archipelago. “We have a lot to inform ourselves about these areas,” Busch says. “We know we’re on a learning journey. We know there will be course corrections as we go.”
Minnesotans and Midwesterners stand to gain from the foundation’s grants as well. In 2012, the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation gave $14 million to local nonprofits and ranked ninth among the state’s corporate, private, and community foundations in local giving. Trista Harris, president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations, notes that in 2011, the foundation accounted for more than 8 percent of all foundational giving in Minnesota.
Outstate communities have benefited, too. After Duluth flooded in 2012, the foundation sowed money into social services for people who were still struggling with damaged homes or nonfunctional furnaces some six to nine months after the disaster. Such grants reflect Cargill’s wishes, says Morse. She was always concerned about disasters that showed up in the media and then seemed to vanish. “She’d say, ‘I heard about a tornado on the radio, but then I didn’t hear anything more about it,’” Morse recalls. “‘What happened? Who was hurt? Who’s helping them?’” Morse would research the issue, report back, and often deliver an unexpected windfall to the organization that was heading up relief work.
Morse is increasingly in the crosshairs of potential grantees as word of the foundation’s size and grant-making has spread. At the Clinton Global Initiative, she reluctantly accepted a position onstage alongside Bill, she says, though she’d much rather have sat at a table with other unrecognized attendees. She rarely accepts speaking engagements, and she says she is doggedly committed to honoring Cargill’s wishes, rather than funding pet projects that fit her own values and interests.
“I’m a fiduciary. It’s not my money. We’re just caretakers,” she says. “I do this because I made a promise to a woman I cared deeply about. That’s why I do it. Never in a million years would I say it’s mine. It’s about what she wanted to do with her legacy.”