Just a few years after graduating from the University of Alabama Law School, Alabama native Millard Fuller thought he had it all: married, with a growing family, a big house, a nice car, and plenty of money from his thriving businesses. But a crisis in his marriage led him to a personal precipice. In a moment of inspiration he and his wife Linda vowed to give away all of their money and join a small Christian community near tiny Americus, Georgia. That’s where Fuller developed the idea for Habitat for Humanity, which he and Linda founded in 1976.
A quarter century later, he and Linda are still together, and Habitat has built over 25,000 homes in the United States and nearly 50,000 homes in 60 countries abroad (the group estimates that over half a million people now live in their volunteer-built homes). Habitat is now among the 20 largest American homebuilders-and by far the nation’s largest nonprofit homebuilder.
With high-profile volunteers ranging from Jimmy Carter to Newt Gingrich, Habitat for Humanity has received praise from across the political spectrum for encouraging people to quite literally roll up their sleeves and help their fellow man. A Medal of Freedom winner, Fuller is also the author of a half-dozen books on his experiences, philosophy, and the “theology of the hammer.” Philanthropy spoke with Fuller at his office in Americus.
PHILANTHROPY: How do you get one of the houses?
MR. FULLER: Every Habitat affiliate worldwide has a family selection committee. That committee is made up of local people, and they receive applications from families that want a Habitat house. They ask many questions, but the two questions at the top of the list are, first, does this family live in substandard or inadequate housing? And second, does this family have an income that is too low for them to qualify for conventional financing? At Habitat we don’t give away anything—the only thing we give away is an opportunity. The family has to help build the house, they have to put in several hundred hours of what we call “sweat equity.” And then once they’ve moved into the house, they have to pay the money back. But at no profit and no interest, which makes it affordable to a low-income family.
PHILANTHROPY: Is there a waiting list in most places?
MR. FULLER: In most cities there are waiting lists, and in some of those cities the waiting list is very, very long. But it varies from community to community.
PHILANTHROPY: Two popular buzzwords in nonprofit circles these days are evaluation and accountability. Unlike many social service charities, you have an actual finished product—a house-that you can see and look at. Do you follow up with the families? If so, how?
MR. FULLER: I think that one the most unique and valuable aspects of Habitat for Humanity is our family nurturing program. We don’t just build houses and move the families in and say to them “good luck.” These families who are moving into Habitat houses are becoming homeowners for the first time in their lives. Almost 100 percent of them have been renters, and now they are homeowners. We want them to succeed as homeowners. And it has been our experience almost without exception that families in need of adequate housing are also in need in other areas. In many cases they have a housing problem because they have other problems. For example there may be illiteracy, there may be poor work habits, there may be abuse, there may be alcohol or drugs. And if you don’t deal with those other underlying problems, even though you have solved their housing problem, they will continue to have other problems. So we have tutoring, budgeting, and family nurturing programs designed to help these new homeowners to be successful. We know from experience that when you move a new family into a new house, they are at a very “teachable” time in their lives. They know that a wonderful thing has happened in their life. And by the way we build the house, the families know that they are the object of a lot of attention and a lot of love. That’s very affirming to people. So they know that this program and the people who run it are doing what they are doing out of a motivation of love, faith, and concern, so they feel grateful. And because this very positive thing is happening in their lives they begin to be open to how they can improve their lives in other ways. The income of the people that move into Habitat for Humanity houses tends to go up. Many of the families go back to school and increase their education, the children tend to do better in school, they tend to be healthier. So overall it’s a very positive experience in the life of a family.
PHILANTHROPY: What happens when a Habitat homeowner can’t pay the mortgage?
MR. FULLER: Habitat for Humanity is based on partnership. First of all we are in partnership with God; we do what we do out of a motivation of God’s love, not because we’re in a profit-making operation. And then we’re partnering with one another. The idea is that Democrats get out there and work with Republicans, and Catholics work with Protestants, and liberals work with conservatives, blacks work with whites, rich people work with low income people—there’s all kinds of partnerships. The most central partnership right below the God partnership is the partnership with the homeowner. We say to the homeowner, you are equal partners in Habitat for Humanity, we don’t have customers and we don’t have clients, we have partners, and what we’re giving you is an opportunity. But the whole concept of partnership means that we have a responsibility from our side as Habitat for Humanity and you have a responsibility from the homeowner side and both sides have to fulfill that partnership. So we educate people about that before they go into their new homes, but then in the rare case where the homeowner does not hold up his or her end of the partnership, we examine that very carefully. The local Habitat board of directors looks into it. And if we find that there is a legitimate reason why these payments are not being made we can temper justice with mercy, but if we discover that the homeowner is being irresponsible or they are just trying to push the envelope, seeing what they can get away with, we will put them out of the house, and we have done so on occasion. It is a hard thing when it falls apart like that and you loose the integrity of that concept of partnership. But we just absolutely insist on it, and fortunately we have had excellent results. And ultimately we are doing the homeowners a favor by insisting they uphold their end of the partnership.
PHILANTHROPY: Deacon William Lock from Milwaukee says there is often a disconnect between skilled, well-meaning volunteers, typically from the suburbs, working closely with people from quite different cultures or backgrounds. How do you bridge those kinds of gaps? What makes a good volunteer?
MR. FULLER: Competence has got to be in the equation. But because of the type of organization that Habitat is, another thing that figures prominently in the equation would be sensitivity. This is just as important as skill, because we need people with an openness to teaching and to working with people who don’t know as much as they do. One of the problems you run into is you get a very competent person who really knows how to build a house and they just get into doing it. The homeowner is standing around not knowing what is going on and this volunteer is just doing everything, and the homeowner just feels left out.
PHILANTHROPY: Rather than showing them how to do it?
MR. FULLER: Right. Plenty of other volunteers come out just as motivated as the skilled person, and they want to contribute to the building of the house because they believe in Habitat for Humanity. So a truly skilled volunteer is one who not only knows how to do the work, but who is sensitive towards others who might not be as skilled as he or she is and who has a willingness to reach out to these persons and include them in the circle of those who are building the house.
PHILANTHROPY: Is it harder to find volunteers in these prosperous times? What do you say to people who tell you, “It’s great what Habitat is doing, here let me write you a check,” instead of getting out there?
MR. FULLER: Well, of course we always appreciate financial support. We do get donations of building materials, but we have to buy a lot of the materials and you can’t do it without contributions. And some people just are not able to get out on a building site, because of age or infirmity, or whatever. But you don’t build houses without labor. Money follows leadership, and so the greatest need is always leadership, because if you have great leadership, the money takes care of itself.
PHILANTHROPY: Last year you had over 200 AmeriCorps staffers. That might strike some people as surprising.
MR. FULLER: Initially, I was skeptical of accepting AmeriCorps volunteers. These people are in effect government employees, and Habitat is a Christian program. I was worried that this might have a dampening effect on the spiritual dimension of Habitat. But so far this has not happened. Privately and individually these volunteers are just a representative sample of the U.S. population—some of them are dedicated in their religious life, others are not. We can use anybody.
PHILANTHROPY: AmeriCorps represents one approach to the impulse towards volunteering. Habitat seems to be an example of the success of the exact opposite. You have hundreds of thousands of volunteers who aren’t getting paid, but are getting plenty done. Seems like that’s a conflict.
MR. FULLER: Well, it might appear that way. There are two things to consider. First, Habitat involves hundreds of thousands of volunteers but our AmeriCorps volunteer total is only a few hundred, so as a percentage of our workforce it’s very, very small. The other thing is we do have paid staff people at many of our affiliates, especially in our larger affiliates. Atlanta, for instance, has 20 paid staff people, and they’re building 80 houses a year. Volunteers come and go; they might be there Wednesday morning to help you build and they might be there Saturday, but they have a regular job the rest of the week. The paid staff people and the AmeriCorps people give you stability and continuity, so that when the volunteers come to the work site, there’s somebody there that’s been there every day that week and knows where the two-by-fours are. The other aspect is that some of the AmeriCorps people come from low-income families or low-income neighborhoods and if there was not a program like AmeriCorps they would not be able to volunteer, because they couldn’t afford to.
PHILANTHROPY: What do you think about charitable choice legislation and the idea of the government underwriting faith-based groups that are helping with a number of our social problems?
MR. FULLER: Well I think it’s potentially both an opportunity and a threat. It’s an opportunity in that faith-based operations like Habitat tend in general to be well run and efficient. And they tend to be run by highly motivated people, who are doing what they do because of a genuine love they have for God and their fellow man. From that standpoint it’s a wise investment if the government can invest in such groups, because they get more for their dollar than they would anywhere else. The potential downside is that the government in this country is secular; it is neutral on religion and it should be. If there are ways in which the government can legitimately assist a religiously motivated program and not corrupt that organization in the process then it could be a good thing.
PHILANTHROPY: Habitat is explicitly an ecumenical enterprise. Clearly you’ve been ecumenical on the theology side of it, but also on the practical side too. You emphasize the importance of a “shared experience” between different people, with people from different cultural, educational, economical levels, donors and donees, sweating and working together. Is that an end in itself-the process not just the product?
MR. FULLER: Yes. In that regard, Habitat is a ministry. I was talking to a man recently who didn’t know the term ministry. That kind of surprised me that you could live in the United States and not know what ministry means. This guy was a sophisticated businessman; he said, “What do you mean by ministry?” Well, I said, ministry is a program that is beneficial to a whole range of people. To minister means to help, to reach out, to touch, to care, to be concerned about someone. The homeowners obviously are the primary focus of this ministry. We’re concerned about getting them out of poor housing and getting them into a decent, good place to live; but there are a lot of wealthy people who are really struggling to find meaning in their lives. They have been hugely successful and all their physical needs are taken care of. But many people who are wealthy from a material standpoint can have a poverty of spirit, with no real meaning or purpose in their lives, and when we put them out on a Habitat work site they literally weep, because they feel like their lives are meaning something.
PHILANTHROPY: You made a fortune yourself through business and capitalism, and you’ve spent years giving money away. Is there a tension between material success and spiritual success, between the kind of philanthropy that Habitat practices and capitalism?
MR. FULLER: There is a tension, but I think it’s somewhat like the tension that exists in regard to fire. Fire has an incredible potential of doing great harm if it gets out of control, but fire under control keeps you alive. Money is like that. Unbridled materialism is a very damaging thing, and I think many people wrestle with that today in this economy because unprecedented fortunes are being made. I had this very situation in my own life. In the early years of my business career, I became absolutely consumed with making money. I kept a daily diary and almost all of my entries were about how much money I had made that day. I even got down to calculating how much money I was making per minute. It consumed all of my thinking, and I think a lot of people get into that. They become consumed with it and it takes over their lives. They no longer own the money, the money owns them. Every waking moment is spent looking at the stock markets and plotting and scheming on how to make more money. It’s like the time someone asked John D. Rockefeller Sr., “How much money is enough?” and he said “Just a little more.”
PHILANTHROPY: Back to the problem of sub-standard housing. Jack Kenp made waves in the early 1990s when he was Secretary of HUD by suggesting that the key to invigorating public housing was to instill a sense of ownership. Why is ownership such a decisive force?
MR. FULLER: When you go into a neighborhood, you can just tell if it’s a rental neighborhood or a homeowners’ neighborhood. When people own something they look out for it better. For most people, their house is the biggest asset they own, it’s the biggest asset they’ll ever own. And if you make homeowners out of people they feel a greater stake in the neighborhood. They feel like it’s their neighborhood. It’s interesting, a lot of African American people here in the South if you ask them where they live, they respond that “I stay” on Cotton Ave. or “I stay” on Lee Street. But when they become homeowners, they begin to say “I live” on such and such place.
PHILANTHROPY: You state unequivocally that your goal is to “make sub-standard housing and homelessness socially, morally, and politically unacceptable.” Some people might argue that with your hundreds of thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars of contributions, you could attack the problem of sub-standard housing more effectively by advocacy and government lobbying. Surely the government can unleash greater dollar amounts than even the most successful nonprofit.
MR. FULLER: Well, I see Habitat as the most advocacy-oriented organization there is—we just advocate in a different way. One of the ways you can advocate is to knock on some senator’s door and say “I have some XYZ legislation I want you to promote.” At Habitat, we encourage every senator and congressman to volunteer at a work site in his or her state or district. The reason we do that is because when you put those senators out on that work site, and they get their hands dirty building that house, and they meet the families who are going to live in those houses, they are going to gain a deeper understanding of the real problem of sub-standard housing. I’ve heard Jimmy Carter say on many occasion that he has come to understand the problems of the poor more through his work with Habitat for Humanity than anything he ever did when he was governor or President. In 1998 we asked every member of the U.S. House of Representatives to build a Habitat house, and 377 of them did.
PHILANTHROPY: In Theology of the Hammer, you wrote that our Judeo-Christian tradition provides the “mandate” for the work of Habitat. Could you do something like a Habitat without that spiritual faith?
MR. FULLER: A spiritual component is what sustains it over the long run, because this work is not all peaches and cream. I know of a director of Habitat down in Miami, who was slugged by a neighbor—knocked him flat on his back. Another leader was hit by a homeowner down in South Carolina and was knocked down. So you don’t always get the people you’re trying to help singing your praises. It’s in those rough times that I’ve seen secular people bail out. But people who have a strong and deep spiritual motivation, they just dust themselves off and keep going. So it’s that spiritual dimension that gives sustainability to our work. That’s certainly been our experience here at Habitat. Every day for 24 years we’ve started our day with devotions. Attendance is not required, but I went to devotions this morning before I started work. Quietly and consistently, day after day after day, we’re down there beating the drum for God and reminding ourselves of why we do it.
PHILANTHROPY: That’s something that you don’t back away from; through your books and your other things, you don’t back off of that spiritual component. Do you ever feel any pressure to do so?
MR. FULLER: Absolutely. I get more pressure on that than on any issue. I get letters from people ridiculing us because we’re a Christian organization, asking “Who do you think you are, do you think Christians got a corner on doing good in the world?” I get blasted left and right. I don’t care what position you might take, somebody is not going to like it. You say you’re interfaith, somebody’s not going to like that, so you say you’re secular, well somebody’s not going to like that. We have drawn a very clear line, and that clear line is that we are openly and unashamedly a Christian program, but not doctrinal and not denominational. We say the only doctrine we have at Habitat is that if you don’t have a Habitat bumper sticker on your car you are living in sin. We don’t get into doctrine—that’s for the churches—but we are a Christian organization that has an open door. We have many people of other faiths, as well as people who don’t profess any faith, who are ardent supporters of Habitat, and they are welcome as full partners in this ministry.
PHILANTHROPY: What do you say to people who say, “I just don’t have the time”?
MR. FULLER: I say, do yourselves a favor, make a little time and get out on a work site and get sweaty. Meet these families whose lives are being impacted by your efforts. You will be blessed. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.