Doing Good As a Path to Belonging (Elkhart)

  • Local Projects
  • 2012

David Gundlach founded a company that provided insurance directly to consumers, by phone and online, way back in 1997 when that was rare. The company thrived, and he sold it in 2006 for $260 million. But Gundlach was walking proof that money can’t buy you happiness, or purpose, or belonging.

Acquaintances say Gundlach was socially awkward, argumentative, and unaware of how he could grate on others. Even as a boy, people avoided him because of his lack of tact, and as an adult he ended up spending most of his time alone, except for eating dinner every night for ten years with the computer programmer he hired to help launch his company. Hoping to maximize the amount of time he could work, Gundlach stopped doing laundry and instead bought new shirts, pants and underwear every week. When he threw a big party for his hundreds of employees at the time of the company’s sale, almost no one came.

Gundlach tried the pleasures of consumption. He bought 11 exotic homes, a Citation jet, and many luxury cars. Still he made no friends. Still he felt no meaning.

His mother continued to live in the town where he had grown up—Elkhart, Indiana—and he was devoted to her. During his visits he found that “when I’m around people from Elkhart I like myself better.” Elkhart is an old manufacturing center that has produced many successful companies and wealthy men over the years. And as in many other tightknit cities there is an informal code of responsibility: when you get wealthy you put in volunteer hours and donate money to make your community better. One local business titan who impressed Gundlach was Art Decio, who made millions building RVs, then gave generously to his region, sparking much admiration.

But Elkhart crashed hard in the 2009 recession, with unemployment spiking to 20.3 percent, the highest in the nation. The city council had to pass a law limiting residents to one garage sale per month. During one of his visits to his mother right about then, Gundlach told the president of the Elkhart County Community Foundation that he was going to leave money “to do good in my home town.”

In 2011, David Gundlach died quite unexpectedly in Malibu, California, of a heart attack at age 56. Elkhart residents were shocked to learn that his will transferred almost all of his assets—about $150 million—to their community foundation. That yielded a sixteen-fold increase in its discretionary endowment and giving, which, as foundation president Pete McCown put it, “will write a different future for Elkhart County.”

Though he had no true friends in Elkhart, or anywhere, the local man who knew Gundlach best summarized his gift this way: “I think it is a great example for people. That we are all limited. But we can transcend that, and be good.”

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