When it comes to seeking a better quality of life for Elkhart County, few organizations embody that goal better than the Elkhart County Community Foundation.
Established in 1989 by a small group of like-minded individuals who made the bulk of their wealth in Elkhart County and were looking to give back, the community foundation is a public, tax-exempt, philanthropic organization that solicits and develops endowment funds and distributes income from those funds for the benefit of the community.
“Our mission statement is to improve the quality of life in Elkhart County by inspiring generosity,” said Pete McCown, president of the foundation. “We are a permanent endowment foundation that allows people to designate charitable interests both in Elkhart County and beyond if they choose, but their gift is made here to the foundation and invested, and then only the earnings from that gift are distributed to their charitable cause. So in essence, it becomes a permanent gift.”
According to McCown, the idea for the community foundation came from an Elkhart businessman named Oscar Schricker. While wintering in Florida in the 1980s, Schricker and his wife were putting their estate affairs in order and wanted to leave part of it to the community where they built their business, McCown said.
It was in Florida where the Schrickers learned of the relatively new concept of community foundations
“After learning of the concept, they came back and started including other people in the possibility of starting a foundation here in Elkhart County,” McCown said. “... A year or so later, Bill Myers was hired to establish it and he became the first president of what was to become the Elkhart County Community Foundation.”
Since its inception in 1989, the foundation has grown from a fledgling start-up with good intentions, but little money, into a powerhouse of charitable giving to more than 500 causes from an endowment of more than $190 million.
Within the first decade, McCown said, the foundation had grown its endowment to about $10 million. By the end of its second decade the endowment had reached $50 million.
Still that growth was nothing compared to the shock the foundation would receive in late 2012 when it learned that David Gundlach, a wealthy entrepreneur and Hollywood movie producer with roots in Elkhart County, had bequeathed his entire personal fortune of nearly $150 million to the foundation, effectively tripling the size of the foundation’s overall worth. Gundlach had died unexpectedly of a heart attack in late 2011 at the age of 56.
“We have folks who are motivated to memorialize a family member, folks who started a company and built a business and built their wealth in the community who want to reinvest, and we have folks who simply care about a particular cause or passion,” McCown said. “So there’s not a lot of rhyme or reason beyond one person wanting to be generous to someone else.”
As for how those gifts are dolled out, McCown said the foundation offers different types of funds, such as unrestricted, field-of-interest, designated, scholarship and donor-advised.
“We have what we call designated funds, where the donor has given us specific direction on which organization is to benefit from the earnings of their endowment,” McCown said. “Then we also have scholarship funds that we manage, where someone may have funded, say, a scholarship for nursing students attending Goshen College, for example. We administer all that.”
The foundation’s core fund, the unrestricted “Fund of Elkhart County”, contains the bulk of the foundation’s resources — approximately $150 million. As an unrestricted fund, distribution of its interest is left up to the discretion of the foundation. Donors who have contributed to that fund basically leave their donations to the foundation board, McCown said,
Each year the funding available for grants is limited to about 5 percent of each fund’s average value, McCown said. That limit is imposed in an effort to maintain the viability of each fund in the future.
“Next year we’ll give away about $7.5 million from the Fund of Elkhart County,” McCown said. “Then we have about $6 million in scholarship funds across about 100 funds, so we’ll give away about $300,000 next year from the scholarship pool. Then with our designated funds, which would be, say, an endowment for the Nappanee Public Library, or for Faith Mission, there will be about $2.5 million distributed from those funds.”
Past recipients who have benefited from funds provided through the Elkhart County Community Foundation include the Horizon Education Alliance; Elkhart Civic Theatre; the Ruthmere Foundation; Child and Parent Services; Church Community Services; Guidance Ministries; the Greencroft Foundation; ADEC; Habitat for Humanity; and Elkhart County 4-H.
Brian Wiebe, executive director of the not-for-profit Horizon Education Alliance, knows the positive impact the community foundation can have on not-for-profits. Horizon was formed in January 2012 with the goal of expanding early childhood education and building a college and career-ready culture in Elkhart County.
“We received $200,000 from the Elkhart County Community Foundation in their last grant cycle, which essentially matched a similar amount from Elkhart County individuals and businesses,” Wiebe said. “This total support is allowing the Horizon Education Alliance to be fully operational in its first year of existence, and we have now hired staff in our key programmatic and research areas, and established office space in downtown Goshen.”
Wiebe noted that even before the recent gift by David Gundlach to the foundation, the ECCF was very strong and highly regarded as one of the finest community foundations in the state.
“Going forward I expect it will be watched closely throughout the Midwest,” Wiebe said. “The board is represented by a strong cross-section of community leaders, the grant committee takes its job very seriously, and other committees like the scholarship committee give generously of their time as well.”
Kathy Mow, a representative of the not-for-profit Ten Thousand Villages in Goshen, believes the community foundation is dedicated to making the community stronger.
“I think they have their hands in just about every area of the county in terms of need and not-for-profits,” Mow said. “You also can’t help but be impressed with how they spread their wealth. You don’t generally ask for a lot of money from the community foundation, but they’re happy to help with things that will help any kind of not-for-profit maintain their growth, and to stay in business, and to keep their focus so they can continue to do the things they’ve set out to do.”
What’s to come
McCown said the foundation will soon kick off what he’s calling the Listening Tour, where the foundation will host between 150 and 200 focus groups across the county asking people to share what they feel should be the focus of the organization moving forward.
His goal is that the Elkhart County Community Foundation will play a role in helping people consider their role as philanthropists and provide whatever generosity they can for the good of the community.
“For some, that’s volunteerism,” he said. “For others, that’s participation in can drives for the local food pantry. And for some, that’s uber-million dollar estate plans that result in an outright gift to a particular cause. Whatever it is, we don’t have an agenda. We’re on the side of the donor and helping them interpret their passions.”
Coming next week
Each year in February The Goshen News publishes a special progress edition that is inserted into the daily paper. This year’s edition will be published on Feb. 28.
The theme of this year’s progress edition, as it has been the past couple years, is “Who We Are.” In advance of next week’s publication we will be running articles and profiles we feel capture the spirit of who we are as a community. We hope you enjoy and agree.