SERIES: The terms that define our mission — “grass-roots”

SERIES: The terms that define our mission — “grass-roots”

(Photo: Doug Miller (left) is a generous financial supporter of The Fuller Center for Housing and an active volunteer who recognizes the direct impact made possible through The Fuller Center’s grass-roots mission. He helped build the home of Latisha Booker (right) in Lanett, Alabama, Millard Fuller’s hometown.)

This is the first in a series of blog posts about terms that define how The Fuller Center for Housing works to help families have simple, decent places to live. On Thursday, we’ll take a look at the meaning of “hand-up.”

A lot of political campaigns tout “grass-roots” efforts to convey their message. A lot of organizations, especially charities, like to describe themselves as “grass-roots.” But what does the term really mean?

No, it’s not the musical group who belted out great songs like “Let’s Live for Today” and “Midnight Confessions” in the 1960s. Nor is it a simple term to explain, but simplicity is at the heart of what “grass-roots” is all about — especially at The Fuller Center.

When Millard and Linda Fuller were forced out of Habitat for Humanity in 2005 — nearly 30 years after founding the nonprofit — it was heartbreaking for them, but Millard saw an opportunity. Tired of the corporate struggled he had enduring the previous 10 years or more, he recalled the simple days of the 1970s and early 1980s when his affordable housing ministry was just getting started.

Back then, they relied on generous individuals, a determined corps of volunteers and churches committed to putting faith into action. As Linda recalls of the early days:

“We lived at Koinonia Farm after returning from Africa in mid-1976, with a makeshift “office” in an old rat-infested, pecan-drying barn. It was hot in the summer, cold in the winter. We purchased a $2,500 dwelling in Americus as Millard’s law office and the first “real” office of Habitat for Humanity. The rotten porch was replaced with a neat brick entrance, painted and modestly furnished. I sewed drapes from bed sheets. In order for our family to live in town, we purchased an old house for $12,500, a 10-block walk for Millard to the office.”

Some might say Millard was too committed to living simply. Some might think it was an overcorrection for the lavish lifestyle he had gained as a millionaire businessman in the 1960s before giving it all away to serve others.

By the time 2005 rolled around, Habitat was not just a household name but had grown to have large offices in both Americus and Atlanta. Corporate influence on the board was growing. Fundraising, marketing and technology expanded. Habitat continued to grow by leaps and bounds. But Millard was concerned about the direction and the adherence to foundational principles. He wanted to ensure that a family “served” was actually a family housed. The head-butting continued until Millard and Linda got the boot from the nonprofit they had founded as an affordable housing ministry.

It didn’t take long for Millard to seize an opportunity from that disappointment — and he, Linda and current President David Snell founded The Fuller Center for Housing as a return to the founding principles with which they had set out more than three decades earlier. They vowed that The Fuller Center would not stray from its grass-roots, Christian principles — the same principles that proved so effective in the early days. They vowed to be transparent and used clear words like families “housed” when reporting success. A family who simply attended a class on home ownership or whose current housing situation was merely evaluated would not be considered “housed.” They knew that donors wanted results — homes built and repaired — more than peripheral and tangential activities that may never result in homes built or repaired.

Millard worked joyously and tirelessly for this restarted affordable housing ministry right up until the day he died unexpectedly in 2009. Linda said that his final years were some of the happiest of his life because he had been able to simplify and do what he really wanted to do with his life — help people in need. He was simply committed to putting faith into action. He was happy that he once again had a nonprofit that allowed him to make a direct impact without a hindering bureaucracy.

FCH headquarters

The Fuller Center remains a grass-roots ministry. Simplicity guides the mission. Despite having more than 70 U.S. covenant partners and 21 international partners, the nonprofit’s headquarters remains a donated former Chinese restaurant in which a handful of dedicated staffers are committed to running a lean operation. They have forsaken larger salaries and greater benefit packages to serve the ministry because they believe in it.

Because of our grass-roots commitment, 90 percent of donations go to work in the field with less than 10 percent going to overhead. (See latest independent financial audit.) Overhead is not inherently evil as it is important to keep the lights on and ensure that such dedicated staff is reasonably compensated for their efforts, but Fuller Center leadership is committed to maximizing every cent given to the ministry in the field where families are housed.

Because of our grass-roots commitment, individual donors know that their donations make a bigger impact. A $6,000 gift can build an entire house in some countries. Donors know the feeling of direct impact that brought Millard such joy in his final years.

Because of our grass-roots commitment, a company or business can work through The Fuller Center to build an entire community or transform an entire neighborhood. They can have far more direct impact. They can point to an actual project they made happen instead of simply sending out a press release about a large financial donation to a corporate nonprofit that went into the same ol’ big bucket with other such gifts.

The Fuller Center is committed to growing the impact this ministry has on families in need of simple, decent places to live. But we remain committed to the grass-roots principles that maximize the impact. In fact, the question has been raised more than once: How do we grow and remain committed to our grass-roots principles? A whole panel of concerned thought leaders who care about this ministry has actually been convened to consider this question and offer guidance on the subject.

We will never allow our commitment to growth to overtake our commitment to the simple, grass-roots, Christian principles that allowed this ministry to flourish in the first place.

So, what does the term “grass-roots” mean to us? It means simplicity that allows the greatest direct impact.

Fuller Center co-founder Linda Fuller talks about getting back to basic principles after leaving Habitat:

 

200th Fuller Center home in Haiti home exemplifies what makes this ministry work

200th Fuller Center home in Haiti home exemplifies what makes this ministry work

(Photo: A local laborer puts the finished touches on the 38th Fuller Center home in Pigñon, Haiti — the first paid for entirely with repayments by previous partner families in the community.)

If I had a nickel for every time I saw a comment like “I wish The Fuller Center would give me a house,” well, I’d have at least $1.85. Of course, I’ve only worked in this ministry for six years. Those who’ve been here longer likely would boast a lot more in their piggy banks.

My first reaction when I see a comment like that on a social media post about the dedication or completion of another Fuller Center for Housing home — here in the United States or abroad — is frustration. However, I have to remind myself that it’s a great opportunity to educate someone who is obviously unfamiliar with the grass-roots principles behind this ministry.

Of course, The Fuller Center does not give away houses. Families build in partnership with us. They commit sweat equity in the building of their homes (often alongside volunteers but also with local laborers) and pay back the building costs on terms they can afford, over time, with no interest charged and no profit made.

Here is the simple concept that truly makes this ministry succeed and grow in each location: Families truly pay it forward as their repayments go into a Fund for Humanity that stay in the community and help their neighbors in need get the very same kind of hand-up into better living conditions. The families, therefore, are not charity cases but are transformed into givers themselves. This empowers families in ways that handouts cannot.

Those who’ve been involved with this ministry are familiar with such pay-it-forward concepts our founder Millard Fuller developed based on partnership principles he learned from theologian Clarence Jordan at historic Koinonia Farm in the 1960s. To newcomers, however — such as those who stumble across a story about The Fuller Center and jump to the conclusion that we give away houses — this is new information.

“One of the blessings that the Fuller Center model offers the poor is the opportunity it gives for them to be more than just recipients of goodwill but donors, as well.” — Fuller Center President David Snell

And it’s a concept they like and embrace. For those who hate handouts, they like that this is a hand-up instead. For those who are unconditionally dedicated to helping the poor, they like that families are empowered to help themselves and break the generational cycle of poverty.

There’s a reason why The Fuller Center is supported by those on the far right, the extreme left and all points in between: Because no one is against helping people help themselves!

The Fund for Humanity concept means that the more Fuller Center homes a community builds, the more it can build. This means that our supporters’ contributions don’t go toward just one house but many. Gifts are recycled, and home-building becomes a rolling snowball, growing along the way.

“One of the blessings that the Fuller Center model offers the poor is the opportunity it gives for them to be more than just recipients of goodwill but donors, as well,” Fuller Center President David Snell says. “And one of the blessings our model gives the rich is that the money they give is multiplied so that they’re not just giving for a single house to be built but for many. This all happens through the Fund for Humanity.  Both the donor dollars and the homeowners mortgage payments go into this fund which is used to build more and more houses.”

More to this milestone in Haiti

The 200th Fuller Center home in Haiti — made possible by volunteers, local workers and supporters like you — is a milestone for that number alone. But there’s more to it. Our 200th Fuller Center home in the country is the 38th in the community of Pigñon, far away from the earthquake-damaged zone where we first began working in 2010.

This 38th home is entirely funded by repayments made by the partner families of the previous 37 homes in Pigñon. These repayments will fund more homes, and when these repayments are coupled with donations by people like you the success multiplies exponentially.

A few of the houses built in Pigñon this year.

As our Director of International Field Operations Ryan Iafigliola noted, there’s always more to every milestone number.

“With the large family sizes in Haiti, that’s over a thousand people spending every night in a dry, safe and permanent Fuller Center home,” he said. “After the earthquake struck, it was such a struggle even to build the first one. Now at 200, they seem to roll one after another, using volunteers and employing local Haitians.”

“But the best part, the very best part, is that we now have a program that others said couldn’t be done — where Haitians fund the homes of other Haitians,” he added of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, where decades of well-meaning handouts have exacerbated the country’s problems and helped foster a culture of dependency. “The Biblical model of a no-profit, no-interest loan is incredibly powerful and empowering, and we’re thrilled that Pigñon has embraced it. But this is no time to stop or slow down. Haiti badly needs homes and partners.”

There indeed is more work to be done in Haiti. And Nicaragua. And Nepal. And Lanett, Alabama. And Louisville, Kentucky. But in these places and dozens more across the United States and around the world, the grass-roots principles of partnership housing have taken root and allowing the pay-it-forward model to flourish.

We will never stray from those simple principles with which Millard was so inspired more than four decades ago. And we will stay true to those principles for the simplest reason:

Because they work!

 


 

Fuller Center President David Snell explains why The Fuller Center for Housing does not give houses away: