ELKHART — When David Gundlach died last year, he forever changed the face of charity in Elkhart County by leaving an estimated $125 million to the Elkhart County Community Foundation.
That more than triples the size of the charitable foundation’s overall holdings, and grows the foundation’s unrestricted fund for Elkhart County nearly tenfold.
The foundation will go from giving out roughly $750,000 a year to about 10 times that amount.
“There’s a historic element to this. I think that 20, 25, 30 years from now, when the story of Elkhart is told, there will be a story of Havilah Beardsley and his decision to relocate and interacting with Chief Moran, there will be a story of this musical band instrument industry that emerged, and the Miles Laboratory story, and in the same telling of the kind of markers of significance in Elkhart County, I think that this gift, while we don’t feel it right now, this gift will be one of those,” said Pete McCown, president of the foundation.
Per capita, the gift is “as significant as the Lilly Endowment’s gift, the Lilly family’s gift to the state of Indiana,” McCown said.
The amazing generosity brings significant challenges to the foundation, across the entire county.
“The challenge now is being thoughtful and wise about how do we deploy this gift. I feel like I’m drinking from a fire hose,” McCown said. “In essence we will give away 5 percent of the value of that endowment each and every year.”
McCown met Gundlach last summer, just months before his untimely death. “We knew that he had means, but in the privacy of his own life and planning it was relatively unimportant for us to press him on the final accounting of that,” he said.
“He had greater wealth than what was expected or what we were aware of,” McCown said.
A week-and-a-half ago, the first $114 million went into the foundation’s account. The rest will follow when Gundlach’s possessions are liquidated.
“There are very few $100 million-plus gifts being made,” McCown said.
McCown doesn’t want the gift to blot out more than two decades of generosity that built the foundation. “There’s 20 years of history there and incredible stories of generosity, they just didn’t have the same kind of wealth,” he said.
“There are lots of people who have made incredible commitments to the community foundation. This just happens to be one that magnifies things, but for 23 years there have been folks that have been working away at this,” McCown said.
Elizabeth Borger, a friend of Gundlach who handled his estate, said, “David gave everything back to this community,” but it’s no more “than anyone else that chooses to give everything back to this community. … He was very successful and gave it all. Others are successful and make huge gifts, and we are equally as grateful.”
Where Gundlach’s gift goes has yet to be decided.
Gundlach left that entirely in the hands of the community foundation, McCown said. When he asked Gundlach about where he’d like the money to go, “He said, ‘Kiddo, as I understand, your foundation exists to do good in my hometown. … Seems to me your organization is better qualified to make those decisions than I am,’” McCown said.
“Is it the elderly? Is it early childhood education? Is it parks and recreation, arts and culture? I think all of those decisions are not yet made. Those are all still, we’ve got to convene the wisest people and include lots of participants in that process,” including leaders of nonprofit agencies in the county.
Some of the proceeds from Gundlach’s legacy may be used to match other gifts, magnifying charitable giving across the county.
The foundation has looked at other large charitable foundations to find out how they handle sizable gifts.
“I don’t think we have any idea what the scope of change is going to be,” McCown said.
That’s up to the 21 members of the foundation’s board, “decisions that will define the future of our community,” he said.
Mike Pianowski, a friend of Gundlach and an attorney who worked to settle the estate, said, “Because of his generosity, true history will be made.”
McCown said, “However it gets designed, 20 years from now, 10 years from now, at some point in somewhat of an arm’s-length future, there will be single moms that drop their kids off at a day care that is world class, who may or may not know Dave Gundlach’s story, but their kids get the best of early childhood preparation to go off to kindergarten.
“There will be somebody whose mother has, her memory is failing and she needs someone to walk alongside her in the latter days of her life and the kids are living in Seattle, Wash., and there will be some aid organization, there will be the resources to take care of their mom in a way that is wonderful and dignified.
“And there will be at-risk kids, and there will be abandoned pets, and there will be arts organizations and I think across the board we’re going to see that Elkhart is one of those places here in the Midwest that people choose to live because of not just Dave’s gift but because the community foundation has the capacity to make this a really exemplary place,” McCown said.
What is the Elkhart County Community Foundation?
The Elkhart County Community Foundation was started 23 years ago, and is guided by 21 board members from across Elkhart County. The foundation had about $45 million in assets 11 days ago, the day before $114 million was deposited from David Gundlach’s estate. Of that $45 million:
Ÿ Roughly a third belongs to other area charities, which pool resources with the foundation to get better investment options.
Ÿ Roughly a third is designated for specific purposes, like scholarship funds.
Ÿ The final third is part of “The Fund for Elkhart County,” an unrestricted fund that makes grants to other nonprofit organizations to benefit arts and culture, community development, education, health and human services, youth development, religious groups and scholarships.
Gundlach’s gift will go into the unrestricted fund, which each year awards 5 percent of the fund’s average balance over the previous four years.