Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies is poised to take its place as the eighth largest philanthropy in America, following a restructuring and consolidation of three separate funds established by the late Margaret Cargill, heiress to the Minnesota-based agricultural conglomerate. Cargill left behind more than $6 billion for charitable purposes, which puts her foundation behind giants like the Gates Foundation ($87.8 billion) but just ahead of well-established philanthropic powerhouses like Bloomberg Philanthropies ($6.5 billion).  Margaret died in 2006, and her massive bequest is now finally ready to be converted into pure philanthropic firepower, thanks to steps taken by her foundation’s leaders over the last decade.  

First, of course, there were all sorts of logistical and legal hurdles to clear as foundation executives—including CEO Christine Morse and President Paul Busch—came to grips with Margaret’s estate, designed an organizational structure for the new foundation, honed in on issue areas, and expanded staffing (the Chronicle article linked to above goes into fuller detail here). 

Most foundations in a similar position—ramping up their scale after the death of a founder—might trend towards ever-greater professionalisation, turning to hard metrics and industry best-practices for guidance on how to proceed. To be sure, foundation leaders like Morse and Busch took these steps, but they never let them distract from the most important strategic asset they had: first-hand knowledge of and guidance from their founder.

In the months leading up to Margaret’s death, Morse and Busch went to great pains to capture and formalize her broad philanthropic vision into a detailed strategy for giving and programming.  A consultant working for the Cargill foundation notes the organization’s exceptional familiarity with its own founder’s particular values and goals: “We work with a lot of people where the donor was active fifty years ago and we’re trying to discern what he or she meant,” says Jeffrey Bradach of the Bridgespan Group, but he says how “different” the Cargill organization is. Even entry-level employees are trained in Margaret’s personal and philanthropic history and vision. 

And though Cargill Philanthropies is now spending some $250 million a year on grants and programming, they’re taking the time to listen to their existing grantees before continuing to scale up. “We wanted to be very careful," says Ms. Morse, "just because we had a significant amount of assets, not to give the impression in the early years that we were going to go out and tell you how to do your jobs. We felt like, we can’t give you advice yet. We need to take time to learn it ourselves.” This admirable restraint has allowed the foundation to focus more effectively on the issue areas outlined by Margaret as priorities—environmental protection, disaster relief, arts, animals, educators and the elderly—by collecting the existing expertise of those already working in the fields. 

So how do you ensure a foundation makes the jump during the pivotal years after the founder’s death, when cash comes rolling in but questions of mission and identity announce themselves most urgently? Cargill Philanthropies offers three clues, at least: Careful organizational restructuring, attention to and institutionalization of the founder’s vision and goals, and the willingness to listen to your existing partners and grantees.