The Community Foundation

  • Prosperity
  • 1914

From modest beginnings, Frederick Goff rose as a lawyer at John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, then became president of the Cleveland Trust Company, where he experimented with theories on improving philanthropy. He invented “living trusts” that encouraged donors to give during their lifetime rather than just in bequests, and helped the city launch what became its community chest and United Way campaigns, to make giving easier and more common.

In 1914 Goff launched his most dramatic innovation: the nation’s first community foundation. Only about a dozen foundations of any kind existed at that time, and his Cleveland Foundation was quite novel in pooling the donations of many small givers into a common fund of real heft. During the years when the foundation was slowly building enough capital to permit giving, Goff personally covered expenses, which included surveys of recreation areas, schools, and other community assets which might benefit from enhancement. During the century since he launched the organization, the Cleveland Foundation has channeled $1.7 billion worth of gifts into local charitable causes.

This example inspired civic leaders in other places to copy the effort, so that small donors in their area could have easy ways to exercise their philanthropic impulses. Many large private foundations—including Ford, Mott, Wallace-Reader’s Digest, Kellogg, Packard, Irvine, Lilly, Kresge, Packard, and Knight—eventually made it a part of their mission to seed new community foundations. By handling grants, record-keeping, and investing, community foundations allow modest-income Americans to give money in efficient and lasting ways. Today there are more than 730 community foundations in the U.S., and an equal number of these distinctly American inventions have been established in other countries.