Just imagine an endowment that supports watering troughs for horses… or an “orphan asylum” for girls whose fathers died in on-the-job railroad accidents.

Such charitable bequests that outlived their usefulness or challenged community values didn’t sit well with Frederick H. Goff, a Cleveland banker and estate attorney. His solution: a “community chest” that would benefit generations to come.

Goff’s idea 100 years ago inspired the world’s first community foundation. One of its first undertakings, launched just weeks after creation, was “a great social and economic survey of Cleveland, to uncover the causes of poverty and crime and point out the cure.”

Today the Cleveland Foundation has awarded over $1 billion in grants and spawned more than 1,800 community foundations. Foundations large and small now benefit communities in Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa, South America, and Australia. In the last fiscal year alone, they awarded almost $5 billion in grants.

While the Maine Community Foundation is much younger at 31, its annual income already ranks in the top 12 percent of community foundations. This year, the foundation’s assets reached $400 million with nearly 1,500 funds. MaineCF distributed $22 million in grants and scholarships in 2013.

Every gift to a community foundation can change a life. You can share your story or learn how community foundations are building a better world on the new Community Foundation Atlas website.

Photo: Frederick H. Goff, father of the community foundation. Photo courtesy the Cleveland Foundation.