When Millard and Linda Fuller were ousted in 2005 from the helm of the nonprofit housing ministry they had built into a thriving charity over the previous three decades, they justifiably could have seen that as an opportune moment to hang up their tool belts and bask in the glow of their accomplishments.
After all, nearly 200,000 families had partnered with the ministry to have simple, decent homes in which they could properly nurture their families and build a strong foundation for their children. The Fullers had more awards and honors than they could count, including a 1996 Presidential Medal of Freedom for Millard.
But, as Linda Fuller recalled while telling her story to a group of college student volunteers recently, Millard was determined to keep helping families have decent places to live and had no interest in Linda’s “pity party.”
“I just had to get with the program,” she said. “He and David Snell (the current president of The Fuller Center) were on the ball right from the start.”
While Millard Fuller had no interest in retirement, he did want to return to the roots with which he and Linda had started the world’s affordable housing movement. He believed a new version of the old ministry would need to go back to the grass-roots, Christian principles that he developed based upon the teachings of theologian Clarence Jordan.
“It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened,” Linda remembered. “And though Millard would only be with us for four more years, those were some of the happiest years for him.”
Though Millard Fuller passed away more than seven years ago, those grass-roots principles remain firmly intact and often are cited by groups who have chosen to switch their affiliation from the Fullers’ first housing nonprofit to The Fuller Center for Housing. Since 2005, 20 former affiliates of the previous organization have chosen to become covenant partners with The Fuller Center, most coming in the past three years.
“The Fuller Center operates with a few basic principles,” President David Snell explained. “We are unashamedly Christian and enthusiastically ecumenical; we follow the Biblical mandate that we not charge interest to the poor; our partner families must be in need but also willing to work alongside us and repay the costs of materials on terms they can afford with no profit made; and our grass-roots nature means that decisions about family selection, construction and volunteer and church engagement are made at the local level.”
With the emphasis on local leadership rather than top-down micromanagement from headquarters, The Fuller Center uses a different term than “affiliates” for its local groups — terminology that more aptly represents the relationship between Fuller Center headquarters and those doing the work in the field.
“We call them covenant partners,” Snell added. “They agree to our basic principles before joining with us and renew their commitments annually.”
“People like our mission and the fact that we are a Christian organization,” said Director of U.S. Covenant Partner Development Stacey Odom-Driggers, who like Snell has worked with both of the Fullers’ housing organizations. “They like the simplicity, support and grass-roots-driven approach that we offer.”
“Fuller Center supports the freedom and independence of our covenant partner to do what works best in our community instead of demanding that we do things a certain way.” — Tamara Danel, Ginger Ford Northshore Fuller Center, Hammond, La.
NEW PARTNERS APPRECIATE GRASS-ROOTS APPROACH
For those who’ve left their old nonprofit housing affiliation for The Fuller Center, there are two recurring themes about why they switched: One, they wanted local control instead of micromanagement from a headquarters they increasingly saw as “corporate;” and, two, they said that recent annual fees required by their nonprofit’s headquarters would be better put to use helping families in the field.
“We like that there are not layers of middle management between Fuller Center headquarters and our covenant partner,” said Tamara Danel, Director of Ginger Ford Northshore Fuller Center for Housing in Hammond, La., one of the first to make the switch to The Fuller Center. “Fuller Center supports the freedom and independence of our covenant partner to do what works best in our community instead of demanding that we do things a certain way.
“We also like that neither Fuller Center headquarters nor our covenant partner is top-heavy when it comes to spending money on management,” Danel added. “We appreciate that more than 86 percent of donations go to the projects we do in the community and around the world. [The previous organization] seemed to be top-heavy and more legalistic when it came to organizational management.”
Randy Rinehart, who leads one of the newest groups to switch in Houston, Miss., cited the ease of working with a non-corporate headquarters, particularly while working in a small rural community. He learned about The Fuller Center through the Fuller Center Bicycle Adventure, whose spring ride takes it through Houston each year. Rinehart’s church, Parkway Baptist, is one of the weeklong ride’s host churches.
“The riders stayed in our church and shared their story and the story of The Fuller Center for Housing,” said Rinehart, whose group joined The Fuller Center in January of this year. “Then, when we interviewed other Fuller Center covenant partners, they talked about the ease of working with Fuller Center as a small-town organization. The biggest difference we have experienced is the personal, hands-on service and cooperation we received from The Fuller Center.”
“It is hard to have a relationship with a corporate conglomerate. Fuller’s folks, especially at the national level, bend over backwards to help, especially when you are new to the ministry. God’s love shows through them and the entire Fuller ministry.” — Kermit Rowe, Clark County Fuller Center, Springfield, Ohio
“The biggest difference that I have seen is Fuller’s people, both on the national level and at the chapters,” said Kermit Rowe, director of the Clark County Fuller Center for Housing in Springfield, Ohio. “When you are committed to God-centered principles in both word and action, that comes across in relationships.
“I’m big on relationships, and it is hard to have a relationship with a corporate conglomerate,” he continued. “Fuller’s folks, especially at the national level, bend over backwards to help, especially when you are new to the ministry. God’s love shows through them and the entire Fuller ministry.”
PARTNERS WOULD RATHER SPEND FUNDS ON WORK IN COMMUNITY THAN ON DUES TO HEADQUARTERS
Rowe said the primary reason that Clark County switched to The Fuller Center’s model was that they wanted to get back to the Christian principles, just as Millard and Linda Fuller did. But they also had a financial incentive.
“The clincher for us was that [their former organization] was wanting to charge each chapter our size $7,500 per year as dues — on top of asking us to tithe 10 percent,” he said. “We could pretty much rehab a house for $7,500 and help another family, which is obviously our main mission. We wanted to keep that money in the community, helping families and spreading God’s love with it.”
The Fuller Center does not require its covenant partners to pay any annual dues or fees, but it does encourage its partners to tithe 10 percent of undesignated funds to help build internationally. However, tithing is not required.
“The people I talk to are surprised that we don’t have any application fees or yearly dues,” said Odom-Driggers, who serves as the first point of contact for those wishing to join The Fuller Center. “They appreciate that we are transparent and have a genuine interest in helping them serve their communities. Each community has its own challenges and strengths, and we are able to provide the framework to build a successful organization that addresses the specific needs of their community.”
“Rather than support us in our circumstances, [the former organization] increased demands for funding over and above our tithe,” said Barbara Curtis, Director of The Fuller Center of Johnson County, Mo., which transitioned to The Fuller Center in 2016. “Additionally, compliance with ever-increasing regulations and requirements became burdensome to us, considering how little assistance they provided. It just seemed our contribution and struggles were under-appreciated.
“It seemed to us that the organization ‘went corporate’ and shifted toward affiliates that were in metropolitan settings, ran commercial re-sale stores, had full-time paid workers and were able to generate results on large-scale projects,” Curtis added. “After years of affiliation with our former not-for-profit, it became clear that our all-volunteer chapter was no longer to be well nurtured by them. We were unable to produce the results they preferred and were in a downward spiral in need of advice, assistance and understanding. We found Fuller Center just in time, and our despair has become audacious hope.”
“We found Fuller Center just in time, and our despair has become audacious hope.” — Barbara Curtis, Director of Fuller Center of Johnson County in Warrensburg, Mo.
Covenant partners also cited innovative programs in their decision to switch — including the Greater Blessing home repair program. Unlike new home partner families, Greater Blessing partner families do not sign documents guaranteeing their repayment. They are instead asked to repay the costs of materials as they are able. The Fuller Center also promotes the Save a House/Make a Home initiative through which covenant partners take donated vacant properties — often considered toxic assets — and restore them to like-new homes for families in need.
Meanwhile, the low overhead at Fuller Center headquarters helps not just covenant partners but others as such volunteer experiences as Global Builders and U.S. Builders trips are very reasonably priced.
A TRANSITION MADE EASY
Partners sign a simple, two-page partnership covenant when they decide to join this grass-roots ministry. The term “partnership covenant” was deliberately chosen to emphasize the use of partnerships in the work of building and repairing homes and the parallel relationship of headquarters with its partners, rather than a top-down approach.
“The Fuller Center helped us through our entire transition,” said Marilyn Hoskins, who leads the Southwest Iowa Fuller Center in Shenandoah, Iowa. Her organization switched to The Fuller Center last year, officially signing their covenant partnership when the awareness- and fund-raising Fuller Center Bicycle Adventure made an overnight stop in her community during its 2016 summer ride from Seattle to Washington, D.C.
“It wasn’t easy in Iowa, for you can’t just change your name with the Secretary of State,” she said. “The Fuller Center, though, held our hand and aided us during the entire process. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The Fuller Center any day.”
Most transitions, though, from one nonprofit to The Fuller Center are surprisingly simple.
“From our very first conversation with representatives of The Fuller Center, our experience has been positive and hospitable,” Curtis said. “The people who staff the international office have been available to answer every question, offered helpful guidance, listened to our laments, and supported our efforts. Sometimes it seems they intuitively know our next question and provide information about our challenges even before we realize them. They seem willing to champion the ‘little guys.'”
“When we interviewed other covenant partners, they talked about the ease of working with Fuller Center as a ‘small-town’ organization,” said Rinehart, who found the transition to be simple and expedient. “When we called the first time, someone answered the phone and talked to us and then called us back and checked on us. They sent personal emails and seemed interested in what we are doing here.”
“When we interviewed other covenant partners, they talked about the ease of working with Fuller Center as a ‘small-town’ organization.” — Randy Rinehart, Director of The Fuller Center for Housing of Houston, Miss.
The Fuller Center for Housing has grown by leaps and bounds since the Fullers hit the restart button on their affordable housing ministry in 2005, but the growth has been steady and not out of control. And while the ranks of covenant partners has increased across the nation and around the world, The Fuller Center only works where it is invited. It does not plant partners, nor does it compete with other organizations to lure their affiliates away.
“The need for the work we do is so great that we welcome the participation of any groups who share our vision, knowing full well that we can’t alone meet the goal of eliminating poverty housing,” Fuller Center President Snell said. “As Millard Fuller liked to say, ‘The Fuller Center won’t compete with other organizations until the time comes to build the very last house.’ That day will be a long time coming.”