The Community Foundation Concept

When Frederick Goff created the original community foundation in Cleveland in 1914, he had two cornerstone concepts in mind. First, he wanted to make philanthropy available to everyday Clevelanders, not just the super wealthy. Second, he wanted to build discretionary capital to address the community issues of the day.

At that time, many captains of business and industry had created private foundations to channel their immense wealth into philanthropy. Goff envisioned an alternative mechanism that would allow individuals of all means to leave a charitable legacy. As president of Cleveland Trust, he had responsibility for administering the bequests of many large estates held in trusts. He saw how often provisions for the charitable uses of trust income became obsolete or counterproductive, a phenomenon he had observed in his work as an attorney. Goff saw the stranglehold that bequests that had outlived their designated charitable purposes exerted on vast amounts of capital. At a time when social needs were great, it troubled him that so much wealth was uselessly held in irrevocable wills. This was referred to as “the dead hand.”

Goff wanted to pool the charitable resources of Clevelanders from all walks of life, both living and deceased, into a single, permanent trust that could be used to address current community needs at any moment in time. The trust’s income would be dispersed by a publicly appointed body, a living hand to ensure the wise and efficient use of the charitable bequests Goff hoped would be entrusted to Cleveland’s community foundation for the “mental, moral and physical improvement of the inhabitants … regardless of race, color or creed.” In envisioning this mechanism, Goff not only vanquished “the dead hand,” he also upended the prevailing belief that philanthropy was the exclusive province of the wealthy.


The Rhode Island Foundation was created two years later with a $10,000 unrestricted gift from Jesse Metcalf.

With thanks to the Cleveland Foundation for sharing the story of Frederick Goff.
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