Eric strapped on his helmet and crawled into the driver’s seat of his twin jet-powered Toyota MR2. He looked across a landscape so flat it seemed like he could almost glimpse the curvature of the earth.
A vast white plain stretched out before him as he spooled up the turbines. Within moments, his engines roared like thunder across the barren landscape, running almost 200 miles per hour. This was a man born with a need for speed, but he never dreamed that generosity would take him on the ride of his life.
The man hurtling across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah was Eric Sheldahl. Growing up on a farm in Iowa, Eric had always been good with his hands. While other kids were out playing, he was in the garage building things. His dad worked construction, and Eric learned to wire houses by the time he was 11. “They weren’t big on licenses back then,” he says with a grin.
After Eric graduated from high school, he went to work as an electrician in Des Moines, Iowa. In 1969, he started building QuikTrip convenience stores. Eventually, he moved from construction to buying and selling real estate, as well as land development, building multi-family homes and subdivisions.
Then, as the recession hit in 2008, he saw a unique opportunity to flip houses in Arizona. He and his wife, Mary, decided to go for it. Eric explains, “We were living Des Moines, Iowa at the time. Mary had just retired, and we were watching the market plummet. I was visiting my daughter in Phoenix when I learned that Arizona is a walk-away mortgage state where people are allowed to just walk away from their mortgages and the homes go back to the bank. So I saw an opportunity and bought our first four houses at a trustees’ sale in July 2009.”
What ensued after that was what Eric and Mary say can only be described as a wild ride: “Starting in August 2009, we flipped almost 200 houses in 18 months. We bought them and remodeled them in eight days. It was a great formula. I just can’t think of anything much more fun.” From Arizona, they moved on to do the same thing in Oregon, Washington, New Jersey, Florida, Maryland, and Colorado.
And as their wealth grew, so did their desire to give. “I grew up in a Christian home, and my parents were faithful tithers,” says Eric. “I understood that everything was God’s, even the breath we draw. I learned from an early age that we are to be good stewards.” Mary grew up in the Catholic church, but she credits a friend from work for introducing her to a Spirit-filled life.
“My friend was full of so much joy and peace and I thought, ‘I want what she has.’ She invited me to her church and that’s when I really met Jesus,” Mary says.
In the latter part of 2014, Eric and Mary were on the Charity Navigator website researching charities to support with their year-end giving. That’s when the Midwest Food Bank caught their eye. Eric explains, “The Midwest Food Bank was in the top 10 list of the charities rated. They had given approximately $89 million worth of food away, on a relatively tight budget. We thought, ‘wow, that’s a great investment.’”
So, they made their first donation, and the relationship continued to deepen. In 2016, Eric helped bring a new food bank location to Gilbert, Arizona, near Phoenix. Today, he serves as Board President of their Arizona Division and is a Director of the Midwest Food Bank National Board.
Mary and Eric and some of the friends they love volunteering with every day.
To grow their support for the food bank and other causes, Eric started looking for a giving strategy that was as innovative as his real estate business strategy. He found the answer when he saw a video that featured businessman, Alan Barnhart, at a Journey of Generosity (JOG) event in southern Arizona. “In the video, Alan explained how the Lord had called him to give away the profits of his company, and he mentioned that the National Christian Foundation had helped him do it,” says Eric. “That’s when I knew that I had to call NCF.”
So, Eric got in touch with Jeff Wallace, Relationship Manager at NCF’s Chicago office, and learned that he had a unique opportunity to save on his taxes and give more by donating a piece of real estate that he owned directly to charity. “I had a piece of property that I had purchased back in 2013 and leased back to QuikTrip, so it had appreciated quite a bit,” Eric says. “I knew if I sold it, I would take a really big tax bite. But NCF explained that I could donate the property directly, save the capital gains tax, and the proceeds of the sale of the property would go into my Giving Fund for recommending grants to charities that we love, like the food bank.”
NCF also helped Eric set up a Supporting Organization, a special type of charitable entity, that makes it possible for Eric to invest charitable dollars creatively and grow resources for giving. “I did a lot of research, and I discovered that the IRS is quite benevolent if there is no self-dealing,” says Eric. “In fact, our tax laws allow for so many creative ways to give, and that’s what NCF specializes in helping people do, all for the glory of God.”
Eric and Mary also like the peace of mind that comes with their Giving Fund at NCF.
“We also have a private foundation that we give through as well,” Eric says. “But as time goes on, we know that assets change, people change, and circumstances change. If something is not in order when we check out, the resources that we have with NCF will go to a Christian cause.”
But Eric and Mary don’t plan on slowing down any time soon. They volunteer at the food bank almost every day and are eager to spread the joy of generosity in their community. The couple will be holding a JOG at their own house soon, and Alan Barnhart will be speaking. “We can’t wait for our friends and family to hear his testimony of generosity, just like we did years ago,” Mary says.
“Maybe it’s because we serve at the food bank every day, but we are very aware that everyone has an expiration date. We also have a best-used-by date, and seldom are they the same. We want to be used of the Lord while we are still near our best-used-by date,” Eric says. “It feels like God has prepared me all my life to do this work, and I’m so glad that Mary and I are here.”