Three decades ago, a vision for a homeless shelter in downtown Charleston transformed into bricks-and-mortar reality, thanks to generous donations from local people and businesses given via the Coastal Community Foundation.

Similar stories abound across the Lowcountry. Without the grant-making community foundation, there might be no Crisis Ministries, no Lowcountry Food Bank, no Metanoia, no GrowFood Carolina or countless other local nonprofits.

Yet, despite its key role in facilitating philanthropy, you won't see Coastal Community Foundation's name on plaques or etched into bricks around town.

As the foundation turns 40 this year, its role remains largely invisible even though it serves as a critical lifeline between major donors and major needs. Today, its staff of 14 manages $178 million in combined assets held in 642 endowed and more flexible types of funds that serve hundreds of nonprofits.

"Forty years of providing funding, guidance and, often times, moral support, is quite an achievement," says Stacey Denaux, CEO of Crisis Ministries. "Coastal Community Foundation has supported us each and every year we have been in existence. They believe in our work, share in our successes and have been great friends to us for many years."

Through local nonprofits, the community foundation has helped thousands of residents gain access to everything from food and housing to education and the arts. In all, it has distributed more than $100 million in grants since its birth.

"We end up being a little seed for those organizations," says George Stevens, its president and CEO.

A seed that, once planted, sends forth community roots, sprouts leaves to protect those in need and grows a stem strong enough to survive the downpours and droughts of nonprofit work.

And then sends those who benefit out into the sunshine of more promising tomorrows.

To think it all started with $9,000.

'Selling' nonprofits

In 1974, that $9,000 marked what the Rotary Club of Charleston had left in its budget. Its leaders wanted the money to go to charitable causes and had heard about the concept of community foundations spreading around the country.

These are tax-exempt charitable entities that provide support from funds they maintain and administer on behalf of a variety of donors.

The $9,000 wasn't a huge chunk for starters. "It was more of a stake in the ground," Stevens says.

Slowly, word trickled out, ebbing into the thoughts of those who wanted to invest in philanthropy but didn't know how to ensure their money was invested well and would go to effective nonprofits.

Then Hurricane Hugo hit. The community foundation provided a critical conduit between donors and needs.

Today, its staff oversees 642 funds, each started by a family, company or individual who wanted to accomplish a certain goal or support a charitable ideal. Typically, donors come to establish endowment funds that will support causes over the long haul.

Stevens likens his role to a real estate agent, except he "sells" donors nonprofits instead of homes. "We have to really understand what you want," Stevens says.

For instance, say a donor wants to help children. There are several local nonprofits that helps kids stay in school by providing after-school tutoring. Others provide hungry children breakfast so they can learn better. Others help abused children or pregnant teens.

"They know they want to help kids, for example," Stevens says. "OK, but how?"

Few donors have the time to vet nonprofits, especially over the long haul. That becomes the foundation's job.

"Institutions like this can do that," community foundation spokesman Jon Yarian says. "They have the institutional knowledge."

They know which nonprofits chronically struggle with donations or roll over staff quickly or spend too much on administration or lack empirical evidence their work matters.

"They do a tremendous job keeping money invested properly and getting a good return," says George Tupper, a construction firm owner from Summerville who invests through the community foundation and serves on its board. "It's a safe place to have money, watch it grow and then reach our charities. I feel very proud of it."

Without that help, Tupper says he would lack the expertise to choose from so many needs on his own.

"This gives me a way to be selective," Tupper says. "It's an intermediary between us and the charity."

Generous spirits

Why has the community foundation been able to grow so much so quickly? Chalk it up to generous spirits and the Lowcountry's charm.

"It's a unique combination of concentration of wealth in the area and the fact that culturally, our heritage is rooted in faith-based organizations," Yarian says. Those tend to focus on giving.

Plus, because taxes are low, there tend to be fewer government social services. Private donors see the unmet needs.

Yet, Stevens and Yarian try to pinpoint another quality, one that explains why titans of industry move here from say, New York or Chicago, yet want to give back here.

There's something in the salty air or the historic vibe of the place that makes people want to be part of it. Plus, the needs can feel closer to home in a smaller community.

"It's partially that you see the need here, but there is something else," Stevens says. "This town is about legacies, about history."

Who wants to be part of that? Apparently, lots of people. The Coastal Community Foundation has become the third fastest-growing, according to the Council on Foundations, a trade association.

However, it doesn't just provide seed money. It fertilizes the nonprofits that donors want to support over the long haul.

"Their investment in our feeding programs, often at the earliest stages, enable us to reach many of our most vulnerable populations," says Pat Walker, Lowcountry Food Bank president and CEO. "It is the definition of a partner who has made a profound impact on nonprofits and the people we serve."

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.