People give money to charity for many reasons. Some people are genuinely invested in the cause and want to support it. Some people want the tax write-off. Some people are looking to earn the admiration of the public. The unfortunate reality is that people rarely donate huge amounts of money simply because it makes them feel good. Margaret Anne Cargill was one of those very rare and special people who made donations without any need to be recognized for her generosity. As member of one of the wealthiest families in the world, Margaret could easily afford to give back a little to charity. Tens of millions? No problem. Hundreds of millions? Without breaking a sweat. Well, it turns out that this notoriously private heiress ended up donating way more than that, much to the shock of her friends, family, lawyers and community.
Margaret Anne Cargill was born in Los Angeles, California on September 20, 1920. She was the granddaughter of W.W. Cargill. William W. Cargill opened his first grain flat house in 1865 in Iowa. In 1866, he brought his brother onboard, opened additional grain flat houses, and expanded into lumber. By the mid-1870s, the company had further expanded. By the early 1900s, Cargill had multiple locations around the country. World War I helped the company grow exponentially and expansion into milling, starching, syruping, and freight, further increased Cargill's profits. By the mid-70s, Cargill was on top of the world. However, after Russia defaulted on debt to the corporation, the company ended up in $4 billion in debt. The company was pulled back from the brink by CEO Warren Staley and his successor, Gregory Page. By 2008, the company had begun to post profits in the billions again.
While her family's company experienced ups and downs, Margaret Anne Cargill grew up and went out into the world. She graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Arts Education, and then moved to Southern California, eventually settling in La Jolla. She established herself as a talented artist and jewelry maker, never had any children, and by all reports, was a very sweet, unassuming woman, albeit rather more wealthy than most. She often chose to introduce herself without using her last name. As one of eight heirs to the Cargill fortune, she chose to establish the Anne Ray Charitable Trust and the Margaret A Cargill Foundation. In the early 90s, she began making sizable donations to various organizations. Many of the people who worked for the organizations had no idea who she was. She would come to functions and events, but again, rarely introduced herself using a last name. All of her donations were made through her foundations anonymously. She was especially generous to initiatives and organizations that supported or benefited at-risk children.
Over the years, she gave $2.4 million to the American Indian Museum. Another $4.2 million went to the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. She gave large sums to the Nature Conservancy, the San Diego Humane Society, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, and the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts. She also donated funds to two organizations in Russia – one that provides HIV/AIDS support and eduction, and one that helps disabled children live at home. The American Red Cross received the largest amount of her focus. She donated over $9 million to the organization over the course of ten years, focusing much of her support on natural disaster, children's education, and lifesaving initiatives. Though her name was actually attached to the donations in some cases, no one actually knew what she looked like. Even when staff members met her, they had no idea they were speaking with one of their most generous supporters. She ended up donating over $200 million to charities around the world between 1990 and 2006.
Margaret passed away in her home on August 1, 2006. When her will was read, it turned out that she had bequeathed everything to charity. It took five years for her assets to be fully liquidated. The final amount – $6 billion. Her friends, family members, and even her own lawyers were shocked. No one had any idea that a) she was sitting on such a vast fortune. Or b) that Margaret would give it all away to charity.
The money was placed with her two charitable foundations and is now being donated to various organizations. Her wealth will continue to support charities, scholarships, and educational initiatives, until it is all gone.
It is fairly easy to see how Margaret Anne Cargill was able to donate so much anonymously over the years. She made no effort to be the "face" of either of her foundations, and she seemed to actively keep her identity as a Cargill under wraps. The question of why she chose to be generous, without expecting any sort of praise, is more difficult to answer. Maybe she felt like she needed to "give back", in some way. Maybe knowing she did some good was enough for her. Maybe she was simply a really, genuinely unselfish, kind person. Whatever the reason, there are a lot of people who are thankful for her generosity. What she was able to accomplish with her money is astonishing and wonderful. Here is hoping we can all be as supportive and generous as Margaret Anne Cargill, regardless of how much wealth we actually have.