Among the more than $8 million in grants that the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation handed out last year was $250,000 to the Somerset Economic Development Corp.

That was a bit of a departure for an organization devoted to its founder’s concern for animal welfare, preservation of the environment and “human well-being.” But it was the kind of grant that gets Jay Espy, executive director of the foundation, excited about the impact that one donation can have.

The money was used by the central Maine economic development agency to help fund the conversion of an old jail in Skowhegan into a grain mill, and to help farmers buy new equipment. Those projects will, in turn, help farmers convert more fields to growing grain — the area was a major grain supplier in Civil War times — supply local bakers with flour, help support a community kitchen and provide space for a farmers market in the town.

“As an economic driver for that area, this food hub is emerging,” said Espy, who helps manage the foundation’s assets of more than $160 million. “Not only does it provide healthier food, it has economic benefits for the community. We’re, in effect, sort of seeding that.”

The Sewall Foundation’s seed money illustrates an emerging trend for Maine-based foundations: making the kinds of grants that can provide more than a one-shot boost to an organization and, instead, create years of benefits for a community, said Janet Henry, president of the Maine Philanthropy Center, an association of Maine grant-making foundations.

Henry said foundations are increasingly interested in not only addressing societal ills, such as hunger and homelessness, but also at getting at the root causes of those problems, such as a lack of jobs, government cutbacks and struggling small towns.

“Donors are becoming more entrepreneurial,” Henry said, realizing that “maybe there are different ways to use those dollars.”

There are more of “those dollars” these days, so there’s more capacity for entrepreneurial grant-making. The philanthropy center’s most recent report, “Giving in Maine,” said 322 foundations were registered in the state, with $2.2 billion in assets and $135 million in grants in 2010.

The foundations’ assets grew by a third over 2009, largely reflecting some foundations becoming “fully endowed” — receiving the final bequests after founders’ estates were settled.

That’s the case for the Sewall Foundation, started by Elmina Sewall, a native of New Haven, Conn., who lived much of her adult life quietly in Kennebunk. Sewall built a fortune, wisely investing her share of the money from her family’s carriage-making business, Espy said.

Among the companies she invested in was Standard Oil — the basis of the Rockefeller family fortune — “when it was like Facebook, although it did better than that so far,” he joked.

Sewall founded the Animal Welfare Society in Kennebunk and supported efforts to preserve the North Woods, among other interests, Espy said, and her fortune went to the foundation after she died in 2005.

Other foundations that are becoming fully endowed include the state’s largest, the Harold Alfond Foundation, begun by the founder of the Dexter Shoe Co.

Alfond received hundreds of millions of dollars in stock when he sold the company to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. — a deal that Buffett regularly laments.

Alfond died in 2007. By 2010, his foundation had total assets of $608 million.

Henry said the impact of foundations is great in Maine, the state that ranked 50th — one spot up from dead last — in individual giving in 2008, according to figures that the philanthropy center compiled from IRS data.

Mainers who filed itemized taxes reported donating an average of $2,702 to charity in 2008, compared with the national average of $4,191. On average, only Rhode Islanders gave less.

Henry said that largely reflects Mainers’ disdain for organized religion — the state was last in a recent survey of Americans’ religious affiliations — and the fact that religious donations account for about a third of all charitable giving.

States with stronger religious ties — across the South and in the Plains — rank high in charitable giving. That means foundations play a bigger role in Maine than in many states, Henry said.

She said foundations are looking at other ways to use their endowments, such as loaning a portion to local organizations, rather than investing everything in stocks and bonds.

That approach can supply local groups with much-needed cash, while earning the foundation a return through interest. It does require taking on an investment that is a little riskier than a blue-chip stock or government bond.

Henry said the focus on economic development can also take many forms, such as the Quimby Family Foundation’s efforts to create an artists’ colony and culinary school in Portland and the Maine Community Foundation’s efforts to increase the supply of locally sourced foods as a way to boost the state’s farming and fishing communities.

“You can never buy enough food (for the needy) through a food bank, but you can invest in other ways to promote economic development,” Henry said.

“It can make for a more livable, vibrant place,” Espy said of the Sewall Foundation’s grant in Skowhegan and similar approaches to giving. “It can have several benefits at one time.”

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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