Update: Christy Morse retired as CEO in 2017 and continues to serve as board chair of Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies.
Christy Morse and Margaret A. Cargill were unlikely friends.
Cargill was the granddaughter of William Cargill, co-founder of Cargill Inc., the Minneapolis-based grain-trading conglomerate. Despite her immense wealth -- her worth was estimated at $1.8 billion by Forbes magazine in 2005 -- Cargill had no interest in business and preferred to live a low-profile life. She grew up in the Midwest but spent much of her adult life in Southern California, pursuing arts and crafts and enjoying nature.
Morse grew up in a small Minnesota town and earned an accounting degree at Gustavus Adolphus College. She eventually went to work for Waycrosse Inc., a financial advisory firm for family owners of Cargill Inc. She now has 30 years of management and financial experience.
The two women met after Morse initiated a correspondence, and they quickly became friends. That friendship lasted until Cargill’s death in 2006.
“She was a very creative person, and I’m not so creative,” Morse said. “But I am financially capable, and organized, and the combination of those two really made life fun.”
Today, Morse is the CEO of the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, which includes three grant-making organizations: the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, the Anne Ray Charitable Trust and the Akaloa Resource Foundation.
During her lifetime, Margaret Cargill gave away an estimated $200 million, nearly always anonymously. She gave to a variety of causes, including the Red Cross, the Nature Conservancy and the American Swedish Institute.
“She used to say to me, ‘Well, honey, I just have the money; I don't do the good work,’” Morse said.
The organization was founded after Cargill’s death -- she had no children -- and it is Morse’s mission to develop the philanthropies according to Cargill’s wishes.
Morse visited Duke as part of the Foundation Impact Research Group seminar series. She spoke to Faith & Leadership about how she is carrying out Cargill’s wishes and building an institution that will endure. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Margaret Cargill seems to have been a remarkable person. Talk a little bit about her attitude toward philanthropy when she was alive.
She was an Episcopalian and went to an Episcopal high school in Kenosha, and was very influenced by the sisters there. She became in her later life a supporter of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego. I would say she was a very spiritual woman.
The two of us got to know each other as friends, but we both believed -- and we talked about this -- that we were brought together for a reason and there was a purpose to our deep friendship, our deep relationship.
She was a very creative person, and I’m not so creative -- but I am financially capable, and organized, and the combination of those two really made life fun.
Q: Does your faith influence the work that you do?
I think the spiritual basis that we had -- it was one of the things that brought us together, our faith.
Q: Are you also Episcopalian?
No, I’m a Lutheran. Minnesota Lutheran. I used to bring her the lutefisk dinner placemats and things like that. She wanted the prayer in Swedish and the placemat from our lutefisk dinner, and yeah, it was great. It was great.
Q: From what I’ve read, she seems to have been a free spirit. She loved arts and Native American culture and camping, that sort of thing.
Oh yes, absolutely! She loved to be out. That stemmed from her growing up in Minnesota, when she would go to camp in the summertime, and it was just a wonderful experience.
Q: I read some stories -- I don’t know if they’re all true -- that she would just pop in and hand someone an envelope full of money and then leave. And also that you served as a go-between, because she didn’t even want the recipient institution to know who was giving.
Absolutely, those are true.
Q: What was the reason for that?
She didn’t want the attention. She wanted to live a low-key, middle-class life, and she did. She could have been any elderly lady walking down the street in La Jolla or San Diego, which is the way she wanted it.
Q: But she was in fact a billionaire, right?
There is one story that the bishop tells: She came to [St. Paul’s Episcopal] Cathedral after one of her dear friends, who is very active in the cathedral, told her that they were short of money.
And so she went down there, and the bishop didn’t know who she was. She walked in and asked if she could see him. She just handed him an envelope. She said she wanted to help. When he asked her name, she said, “Oh, just say an angel stopped by.” And then she got up and walked out.
He then put the check in his drawer and went to several meetings and didn’t open it until he came back. He figured that it had 20 bucks in it, right?
And when he opened it, it had $50,000 in it, which was the amount of their shortfall.
So yes, she liked to do that. I would arrange donations for her so that they wouldn’t have her name on it. She was very intent on making sure that the attention was on the grantee and not on her.
She used to say to me, "Well, honey, I just have the money; I don't do the good work.”
And that is something that we continue to emphasize in the organization.
Q: I’m sure it gave her great pleasure to show up with a check out of the blue. But you were charged with creating an institution after her death. How did you go about doing that?
We [had] formed the Akaloa Resource Foundation and the Anne Ray Charitable Trust in ’95 and ’96. At that time, there were literally three of us: there was Margaret, myself and Cathy Hopper, who was one of her very good friends, and became my very close friend.
She left instructions that said Cathy and I were to run this going forward. Well, a year after Margaret died, Cathy passed away.
It was then that I realized I had to start bringing in not only people with specific expertise to help me form a lasting institution but also to take advantage of those people who knew her during her lifetime.
One of the things that Cathy and I did during her lifetime was invite in two people who were at the time strangers to her but whom I had been working with on the financial side.
And that was Paul Busch, who is now the philanthropy’s president, and Naomi Horsager, who is now our chief financial officer. And so those two sat with her alone without anyone else in the room and talked with her about what she wanted these organizations to work on when she was gone.
And [Cathy] and I did that very intentionally. We felt we knew, but we wanted to establish the fact that these were her wishes, not mine and not [Cathy]’s, and we wanted it documented.
And so Paul and Naomi came back several times over six to nine months. In that process, in addition to documenting what she wanted, they laid out for us how you go about building this from a legal perspective, from an accounting-finance perspective, that kind of thing. So we had those guidelines.
Q: Is it a challenge or is it exciting to build something from scratch?
I think it’s both. It’s a blessing to be able to bring to life what she wanted done.
But it is definitely a challenge. We’ve gone from the three of us doing absolutely everything to a lot of people, a lot of lives, a lot of people who need to understand why they’re there, and what is expected of them.
Building our culture is one of the most important things I can do before I’m gone. So it’s really important to be sure that our employees understand who Margaret was, and why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Q: How do you do that?
I did a video for my employees where I talked about her history, and the history that I had with her, and the history of her giving, and how she approached giving, to give them a feeling. That video is shown to all of our employees when they come on board.
We have a set of values written down, and that is given to the employees when they come on board.
We talk about excellence and integrity; doing the right thing when nobody’s watching is really important. We talk about respecting both internally and externally our fellow employees, as well as the people we deal with, our vendors and grantees; how you treat them is crucial. We talk about being a learning organization through evaluation.
And we talk about the humility, because it’s really making sure they understand that it’s not about them. It’s about the grantees and what the grantees do.
So we try to make this obvious and apparent, and we talk about it, and bring it into our meetings and our discussions.
Q: Given that Margaret Cargill was so unstructured in her giving, do you ever worry about making things too systematized?
I think that her interest areas help us not to do that.
We have an animal welfare program because she loved animals. She had puppies; she cared about the habitat corridors and helped fund some of the corridors in California so the wild cats could move from one area to another.
We have “relief and resilience” disaster response, domestically and worldwide.
Q: Disaster relief seems to be a theme through her lifetime and in the giving you do now. Did she have a personal experience that made her interested in that area?
I don’t think she did. It touched her.
That goes to another one of our philosophies of grant making. One of her philosophies was to fund issues that are underserved. And so our disaster relief and our relief and resilience program domestically, for instance, covers the middle of the country.
When we did our gap analysis and our due diligence on that sector of philanthropy, the media was creating a lot of input of funding to the coast. But there are always disasters that are happening to people in the center of the country that get very little media attention and very little funding for assistance.
And so she felt strongly that we should pay attention to those people that others are not paying attention to.
Q: Is that a theme that goes throughout the philanthropy?
Absolutely. There is not a lot of funding going into Native American arts and culture in this country, or indigenous art and culture around the world. She was very interested in our Native Americans. She was very interested in the indigenous people in Canada, First Nations people. She was very interested in the Mexican culture just south of where she lived.
She was very interested in Scandinavia, because she was raised in a household where they had immigrants from Sweden and Norway.
Another area that was near and dear to her was teacher education. And so she really wanted to be sure that teachers had the support to want to stay teaching, and she thought a really important area for children to learn about was art and culture.
Q: Did she give to religious organizations?
She was involved in the [Episcopal] cathedral in San Diego. But that was really the only religious institution she was involved with during her lifetime, other than when Bishop [John] Chane was elected [interim dean] to the Washington National Cathedral. Then she was interested in what he was doing there, because he was a friend.
We give grants to a number of faith-based organizations; we do that not because the philanthropies are associated with any particular religion but because they use the grants in ways that are in concert with our values.
Q: So it sounds very gratifying as well for you, not only to carry out the wishes of a friend, not only to do good, but also to build this enduring institution.
Yes, it is. I’m blessed. I just feel so lucky to be able to do it.