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Welcome To Tiny Elkhart County, Indiana, Which Just Got $125 Million Richer

Thanks to a donation from the late Hollywood producer David Gundlach, a place where nobody locks their doors is swimming in cash. What happens now?

Pete McCown is the president of the Elkhart County Community Foundation. The county, only about 200,000 strong, just inherited a reported $125 million from the late David Gundlach, an Elkhart native son who made good as an entrepreneur and Hollywood producer, while retaining an apparent soft spot for his hometown. (Gundlach died of a heart attack last year, at 56.) We caught up with McCown to learn more about the newly flush Elkhart, a county of RV manufactories, Amish horse-and-buggies, and feral cats.

FAST COMPANY: When did you first meet David Gundlach?

PETE McCOWN: David and I were introduced to each other last summer. I was president elect of the community foundation at the time. David’s attorney called me and said, I’d like you to meet a client. In the first 10-15 minutes of our acquaintance Dave said, "Pete, I just wanted you to know I’ve updated my estate plan, and I included the community foundation." That was the extent to which he disclosed anything. I pressed him on things he was interested in as a philanthropist. I said, "Dave, you need to shape this. It may be 40 years from now that the foundation realizes your gift, and the two of us will be old men playing golf, but tell me what your values are, what you’re hoping to accomplish." He said, "Kiddo, it seems to me that your organization is better qualified than me to make those decisions." Three months later, I came home on a Sunday after church and lunch with my family, and on the answering machine was the estate attorney saying he’d just learned Dave passed away in his sleep.

The gift is massive.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy, which in its own industry is like the Wall Street Journal or Rolling Stone magazine for the not-for-profit community, said Dave’s gift would have been the fifth- or sixth-largest gift last year in North America in 2011. It will likely be one of the 10 largest gifts of this year. The remarkable thing here is this is a modest-sized county of just a couple hundred thousand people.

Pete McCown

Tell me about Elkhart County.

Elkhart County is a collection of small cities or mid-sized towns. We have Elkhart the city, which has 50-60,000 people, then Goshen’s the next largest, about 10 miles down the road, with 25-30,000 people. Then there’s Middlebury and Nappannee, and much smaller communities as well. Our economic engines would be blue-collar manufacturing and the farming and agricultural communities. I’m told the majority of trailers, motor homes, and RVs are manufactured out of Elkhart County or in one of our RV companies’ auxiliary plants around the country. When economic times are good, this community’s booming, but when people don’t have the money to buy motor homes, this community suffers some of the worst of the economic downturn.

Is it a friendly, no-one-locks-their-doors sort of place?

Yes, it’s a Midwestern town in the classic sense, where people have grown up together and know each other. It’s the kind of place where at the local diner there’s a table with five or 10 guys drinking coffee and catching up on how the local basketball team did. It’s the kind of place where you sell your house and at the closing you have to go find the keys, and you can’t, because you haven’t locked your doors in the last 20 years. Another interesting thing about Elkhart is that 10% of our population is Amish, so you’ll have horses and buggies going up and down the streets, with cars going around them.

How do you spend all this money while keeping the down-to-earth spirit of the community?

Every morning in my inbox I have 250-350 emails from people with ideas. We’re working on creating venues in our community for people in our community to be participants in shaping the direction we take.

Were there any issues in the community that you weren’t aware of until now?

The Feral Cat Society would be one. There is an organization of large-hearted individuals who are worried about wild cats, and they care for wild cats. They trap and sterilize these wild cats so they don’t reproduce, since for them to be actively reproductive in the wild would create a burdensome population of wild cats in our community. They believe there’s a dignity to the life of that wild cat, but there aren’t enough homes to take in the hundreds if not thousands of wild cats out there. So they feed and provide some degree of shelter and trap and sterilize these cats so they don’t produce continued litters of kittens. That’s an issue I wasn’t aware of, but I have great regard for people who are aware of that and are doing something about that. Do feral cats rise to the level of child hunger? Most would argue no. But is the way we treat our wildlife in our community an important reflection of our values? Absolutely.

Do you have a philosophy of how to use all this money you’ve been given?

The grant-making model I’m most enamored with is the model of the Kresge Foundation. Kresge is the "challenge grant foundation." They inspire other organizations across the country to raise more money, and if they achieve that, then Kresge steps in with a matching grant. There’s an impression now in Elkhart of, "Well, what good does my $10,000 gift to the Boys and Girls Club do?"

So you worry some local people may feel their smaller gifts can no longer make a difference?

Right. I’m reminded that there’s a little girl in this community who for the last four to five years sends us a dollar a year at the end of December to add to the funds for Elkhart County. Her parents have done some good work, and encouraged her to be generous at Christmastime. That’s going into the same fund, the same grant-making tools that Dave’s $125 million are gonna go into. Dave’s story, while it’s newsworthy for the sheer magnitude of it, is the same story that’s gonna get told next week when someone gives money to the homeless shelter in our community.

This interview has been condensed and edited. For more from the Fast Talk interview series, click here. Know someone who'd be a good Fast Talk subject? Mention it to David Zax.

[Image: Flickr user Tony Fischer]

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