Long before hurricanes ravaged Caribbean islands or floodwaters swamped Midwest river towns, Minnesota-based Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies was preparing for the worst.

Minnesota's wealthiest philanthropy positions millions of dollars in accounts that nonprofits, including the American Red Cross and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, can immediately tap when catastrophe strikes.

The Eden Prairie-based organization gave $47.4 million to disaster relief and recovery efforts last year — one of seven categories of giving totaling $263.8 million — the most of any philanthropy in Minnesota.

"Their approach is unprecedented. It's quite unusual for a foundation to recognize there will be disasters occurring and to set aside money in advance of disaster," said Bob Ottenhoff, president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

A decade ago, the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation quietly opened its doors in Minnesota and immediately became the state's wealthiest and perhaps most enigmatic philanthropy, with billions in assets, an invitation-only grant making style and a recently deceased benefactor who, in life, had chosen to give anonymously.

Foundation leaders carry on in the style of the granddaughter of company founder W.W. Cargill. "They do not seek public attention," Ottenhoff said. "They are quiet, reserved but, behind the scenes, there is a lot going on."

Today the once-fledging foundation — one of two foundations fueled by Margaret Cargill's generosity now organized under the MACP umbrella — has 93 employees including newly named CEO Paul Busch and a much clearer sense of identity. MACP, which has $6.7 billion in assets, awarded 375 grants last year, marking its third year of grant making at full capacity.

A decade of intense research and deepening partnerships with nonprofits guide its grant making in seven domains addressing Margaret Cargill's passions and priorities: environment; disaster relief and recovery; art and cultures; teachers; quality of life; animal welfare; and legacy and opportunity.

Funded projects range from helping communities ravaged by flooding here in the Midwest and in the Philippines. MACP, partnering with the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund, supports conservation and restoration of the Great Plains in the United States and Canada and of tropical forests in Asia and South America.

Their grant making in the quality-of-life domain — its newest initiative — stretches from students to senior citizens.

MACP gave grants to 500 YMCAs for swimming lessons for 50,000 children. Support of the University of North Dakota's Center for Rural Health helped fund programs that allow elders with the Spirit Lake Nation to age in place.

A critical mission of the foundation is to develop long-term relationships with nonprofit partners and evaluating impact, Busch said. MACP staff includes a team of evaluators.

"Evaluation and learning is integrated into the grant making process, making sure we are having an impact," Busch said. "It's important to spend the time to examine the impact your dollars are having."

Serving the underserved

Busch, who was promoted from president to president and CEO this year, said per Margaret Cargill's requests, two overarching principles inspire all their grant making: have a global reach but work at a community level and address underserved communities and issues that often slip through the cracks, even in the world of philanthropy.

"Margaret directed us to find those low-attentions areas," Busch said.

One example of serving the underserved is the Midwest Early Recovery Fund created in partnership with the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. In addition to supporting national disaster relief work, they fund disaster assistance in 10 Midwest states including Minnesota and the Dakotas where floods and twisters cause immense damage but quickly fall out of the national headlines and often don't even get a state or federal disaster declaration.

"She would hear about a flood in the Midwest. She knew there was suffering even though you didn't hear about it in the news," Busch said. "It's really where the silent disasters are happening."

Ottenhoff, with the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, said MACP emphasizes resilient rebuilding and recovery that can withstand the next flood or storm. They partner with the nonprofits they fund.

"It isn't a foundation that takes a check and throws it over the fence. It's a foundation that works with you to develop a program," he said. "We get to know them and the foundation leadership well. They try extra hard at communication. They try to share with us their thinking around strategy and funding direction."

Another underserved area now getting MACP attention is aging services, especially in rural areas where seniors struggle to find home care and transportation services and qualified caregivers that will allow them to remain in their homes.

"We think there is a really overlooked opportunity to improve the quality of care and provide [seniors] as many choices as possible," said Terry Meersman, MACP vice president of programs. "If they can stay in their homes longer and have selective home care services, they don't have to be prematurely institutionalized."

Margaret's influence

Margaret Anne Cargill was born Sept. 24, 1920, and grew up in Minnesota — her debutante photo running in a July 1940 edition of The Minneapolis Sunday Tribune. She earned an arts education degree from the University of Minnesota, moved to Southern California and largely fell out of the public eye — by choice. She was never married and had no children.

"During her lifetime, she wanted as much anonymity as she could possible have," said Busch, who served as one of her accountants and helped her document how she'd like her fortune to be used.

Busch traveled to her La Jolla, Calif., home and got to know her before she died in 2006 at the age of 85.

Margaret Cargill loved vibrant colors, especially red. Two red couches from her home are now in the Reflection Room at the MACP headquarters — a place for staff to rest and reconnect with mission. Friends recall her bright blue eyes and colorful attire. She was drawn to nature, art and artistic expression.

Busch said she enjoyed jewelry making and pottery.

"She enjoyed her friends. She valued friendships. She laughed a lot," he said. "She loved to travel and to be outside."

She set up two foundations during her lifetime and gave away more than $200 million. Her anonymous gifts often came with the condition that recipients not try to track down their benefactor.

Busch said it took persuading for her to agree to place her name on the foundation posthumously. Staff members gather with nonprofit partners each year on her birthday to honor her and reflect on their work.

But Meersman said they're also looking toward to the future and how they can take her wishes and innovate, expand, and work locally to have a global impact.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804