The World’s First Community Foundation

Frederick H. Goff

Frederick H. Goff

Banker and lawyer Frederick H. Goff was a “mover and shaker” in Cleveland long before that phrase became part of the American lexicon. Today, the moving and shaking that Goff began with his revolutionary idea have become a benevolent worldwide rumble. And its greatest reverberations are still here in his adopted home town.

Goff was already an elite professional and the former mayor of what had been the city of Glenville when he hatched the idea of a “community trust.”

His vision was to pool the charitable resources of Cleveland’s philanthropists, living and dead, into a single, great, and permanent endowment for the betterment of the city. Community leaders would then forever distribute the interest that the trust’s resources would accrue to fund “such charitable purposes as will best make for the mental, moral, and physical improvement of the inhabitants of Cleveland.”

From that revolutionary idea, the Cleveland Foundation was born on Jan. 2, 1914. Within weeks, the foundation began reshaping the way community members care for one another not just in Greater Cleveland, but around the nation and the world.

Cleveland Foundation Centennial Site

Cleveland Foundation Centennial Site

By the end of that decade, a series of sweeping, reform-minded studies the foundation launched were bearing fruit. One laid the groundwork for the creation of the Emerald Necklace of the Cleveland Metroparks. Another shook up a corrupt and “Dickensian” justice system. Another spearheaded sweeping public school reforms and gave support to the radical notion that girls were worthy of equal education.

The foundation had also spawned a global movement. Within five years, community foundations had sprung up in Chicago, Boston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Buffalo, N.Y.

Now, more than 750 community foundations in the United States collectively manage more than $48 billion in assets and distribute some $4.3 billion a year to community needs. Moreover, the idea has emigrated: Some 1,700 community foundations now exist worldwide.

Here at home, Goff’s dream has grown into a $1.8 billion civic-progress fund – an engine of collective betterment, collaborative partnerships, and courageous leadership. The foundation has evolved from an institution funded by the wealthy to one endowed by people of all income levels. It serves the region, not just the city. And it has firmly reinforced its commitment to serve as an active and visionary community agenda-setter, not a mere grantmaker.

Along the way, the Cleveland Foundation has bestowed more than $1 billion in grants. The grants, and the expertise of the foundation’s professional staff and partners, have touched millions of lives. Those resources have invigorated our region’s health care, arts and culture communities, neighborhoods, schools, economic development programs, and more.

And it is only a start.

By the people, for the people

We are a community foundation created by Greater Clevelanders for Greater Clevelanders. For more than 100 years, the foundation has lived an ethic best summed up in our modern mission statement: To enhance the lives of all residents of Greater Cleveland, now and for generations to come, by working together with our donors to build community endowment, address needs through grantmaking,  and provide leadership on key community issues.

We serve Cuyahoga, Lake, and Geauga counties by strategically sharing wealth – bequests and living trusts, as well as the richness of human capital. Our assets, around $1.8 billion in all, are the community’s in the form of more than 1,300 separate funds representing individuals, families, organizations, and corporations.

The foundation invests these funds in perpetuity, so that the resources remain in trust forever. Then we distribute the funds’ earnings to worthy organizations, mainly nonprofit organizations in Greater Cleveland. In that way, we and our community partners leverage the wealth of yesterday, today, and tomorrow to create opportunities, answer needs, and fulfill dreams.

Our legacy surrounds – in our metropolitan parks, our cultural institutions, our neighborhoods, and our schools. Our outreach touches people through all of life’s stages, from prenatal months to elder years. We help give root to generations of new leaders through scholarships, internships, leadership academies, and mentor pairings.

We are the Cleveland Foundation. We build prosperity for the people in our community to thrive.

Frederick H. Goff’s revolutionary view of charitable giving

Eliminating the ‘dead hand of the past’

At the dawn of the last century, Cleveland Foundation founder Frederick H. Goff vowed to sever the “dead hand of the past.”

That’s the phrase Goff and others derisively used to refer to wills that left large sums of money for charity, but encumbered it with conditions and directions that proved so limiting that the bequest wound up being choked off from beyond the grave.

As an estate attorney, and later as president of Cleveland Trust Co., Goff viewed those sorts of endowments with disgust, and spent years searching for legal ways to comply with such directives or fighting uphill court battles to get them overturned.

Some examples of irrevocable wills that became useless or contrary to evolving community values and standards of decency:

  • An “orphan asylum” for girls whose railroad-worker fathers died in on-the-job accidents. It was a benevolent idea in the mid-19th century, when rail work was deadly. But safety had so advanced that by 1933, a nationwide search for eligible orphans turned up only a dozen.
  • An endowment for watering troughs for horses.
  • Dictums forbidding an endowment – most commonly a school or college – from benefiting women or ethnic or religious minorities.

Goff was also dismayed at how the heirs of 19th-century industrial magnates lost interest in the charitable trusts their ancestors had formed for their descendants to run.

So while pondering what should become of his own considerable wealth after his death, Goff conceived a better way – what he called a “community chest.”

Goff later explained to Colliers magazine: “How fine it would be if a man about to make a will could go to a permanently enduring organization –  what Chief Justice Marshall called an ‘artificial immortal being’ – and say: ‘Here is a large sum of money. I want to leave it to be used for the good of the community, but I have no way of knowing what will be the greatest need of the community 50 years from now, or even 10 years from now. Therefore, I place it in your hands, because you will be here, you and your successors, through the years, to determine what should be done with this sum to make it most useful for people of each succeeding generation.’”