Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity and one of the world's great social entrepreneurs, cultivated the idea of building affordable housing through the Christian ministries and watched it grow to astronomical proportions. Today, the world-renowned organization has built over 300,000 houses across the globe, giving more than 1.5 million people a safe place to call home. Here, the celebrated humanitarian speaks candidly about working to eliminate poverty housing throughout the world.
Susan Davis: Does Habitat for Humanity have a solution that matches the size of the world's housing problems?
Millard Fuller: Do I think that Habitat for Humanity can solve the poverty-housing problem? Yes. I'm trying to get everybody in the world to have a decent place to live.
We've built thousands of houses, but millions are needed. We hope that because of our actions we will motivate governments. We will motivate other organizations that don't even have any connection with us to join in and do something.
SD: You say your goal is to have Habitat operating in every country in the world and you already have a presence in more than 100 countries. What is your strategy for expanding?
MF: You have natural constituencies. Every country in the world has got big populations here in the United States. So when we started building in the Philippines, we found all the Filipinos we could in this country and started by going to them and saying, "Hey, wouldn't you like to help out in your home country?"
Or in Egypt we built 5,000 houses and we worked with the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Coptic Evangelical church. We had the national director of Habitat's program in Egypt going around the United States visiting Egyptian churches. He comes marching in and says, "We're building houses for Egyptians. You're Egyptian. Wouldn't you like to help?" And a lot of them do. They start giving money, and we organize work teams from those Egyptian churches to go over there.
SD: How do you reach out to expand your base?
MF: A little more than one-third of all of our income for our budget here in the United States is from direct mail. I don't know the exact number but it's a lot of folks—it's probably 70 or 80 million. The people who give you the most money are people in their fifties, sixties, and seventies. The kids are gone and they've got disposable income. So they can write checks to Habitat for Humanity and other groups.
Sometimes people get into their sixties and seventies and older and don't have as many expenses, or they want to leave something behind and they start thinking about God and their own mortality. "How will I be remembered?" That's what has lasting value in the scheme of things. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
SD: A leader has to be a visionary and think big.
MF: People around here laugh and say, "Millard has dreams and it gives the rest of us nightmares." But I'm always pushing us to go to another place. If we're in 100 countries I'm already thinking about 120 countries.
Our goal is to be in every nation on earth. We're in 100 countries now. We'll get the low-hanging fruit first. You don't climb past fruit in order to go get the fruit that's in the top of the tree. You get the low-hanging fruit and then eat as you go up. Probably Israel and Saudi Arabia are at the top of the tree. We're even building in places like Vietnam, Jordan, Egypt, and Indonesia.
SD: And your circle stops only with every country on this planet?
MF: It doesn't even stop there. I already have a building permit to build on the Moon. I went down to Florida to speak and they gave me a building permit for the first Habitat house on the Moon. I think that new way of thinking is the only hope that we have of bringing peace to the world.
SD: When President Clinton awarded you the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, he said you had "revolutionized philanthropy." Why do you think he said that?
MF: I think it's connected with the idea that people like to see what their money is paying for. It's been said that Americans will support anything they can take a picture of.
I think that's what President Clinton was talking about: Habitat gives people an opportunity to be involved, not just by writing a check but total involvement—by wearing a T-shirt, putting a bumper sticker on your car, sawing boards, and serving meals. Habitat calls for the total involvement of people who get involved with the ministry.
Reported by Susan Davis
What do you think?
Habitat for Humanity, a Christian-based organization, strategically unites members of churches, mosques, and synagogues to work side-by-side building houses for people of all faiths. With a presence in more than 100 countries, what kinds of global networks do you think Habitat could create linking millions of people together to build not only houses, but also partnerships, relationships, and lasting bonds based on mutual acceptance?
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