“What the poor need is not charity but capital, not caseworkers but co-workers.” So declared Millard and Linda Fuller in the letter that launched their new group Habitat for Humanity in 1976. Millard had become a millionaire by age 29, but his workaholism nearly destroyed their marriage. As part of their healing the couple joined Koinonia Farm, a small interracial Christian community outside Americus, Georgia, and there they conceived the idea for “partnership housing.” After a stint as overseas missionaries, the Fullers began to put their vision into practice.
Habitat for Humanity has grown to have more than 1,400 local affiliates across America and the globe. Its housing program uses volunteer labor and donations (large and small) of money and material to build and rehabilitate homes with “partner families” who are in need. Local affiliates select the families, who then invest hundreds of hours of “sweat equity” in their own home. The families also provide a down payment and monthly mortgage payment. These family contributions make the house “their own,” but the volunteer labor, donated materials, no-interest mortgages, and no-profit sale combine to bring ownership within reach of people who would otherwise have no chance of possessing their own residence.
Many of the families Habitat works with need some counseling and nurturing as well, which the organization provides. The result is a very low default rate, and families tend to increase their education and incomes after earning their home, while their children tend to become healthier and do better in school. “We are openly and unashamedly a Christian program,” Fuller proclaimed in the early years, and the program retains its Christian roots today. It refuses any government funds that would limit its ability to proclaim its faith-based mission. At the same time, it is thoroughly ecumenical in the persons it helps and the volunteers it recruits.
And Habitat for Humanity doesn’t just help the poor: as Fuller told Philanthropy magazine, wealthy people “can have a poverty of spirit…and when we put them out on a Habitat work site they literally weep, because they feel like their lives are meaning something.” By 2012, Habitat had placed over 4 million people in more than 800,000 families into homes of their own.
- Philanthropy interview with Millard Fuller, philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/ millard_fuller_give_that_man_a_hammer
- Millard Fuller, The Theology of the Hammer (Smyth & Helwys, 1994)