Restructuring after the dismissal of founder Millard Fuller has some affiliates longing for a more grassroots approach, but a glance at form 990s and trends in U.S. housing reveals more fundamental perils facing the organization's mission and methods in its home country.
Stephanie Strom in the New York Times reported on some grumbling in the ranks of 1,600 local U.S. affiliates of Habitat for Humanity International (EIN
But the transition to a new affiliate agreement was already underway before the leadership changed. You can find on the Internet a Microsoft Power Point presentation about the agreement dated 2003, including links to a checklist of best and acceptable practices referred to in the article (worth looking at by anyone interested in nonprofit standards), and a description of the tithing program that recommends that affiliates pay 10% of their donations to the central location for use in other parts of the world.
It doesn't seem to me that complaints or even defections by a few dozen affiliates will seriously damage Habitat, even though Mr. Fuller has started his own competing organization, the Fuller Center (EIN 52-2455871 Form 990). With just a little over a million in income, this organization has a long way to go before it will present a serious challenge.
Looking at the IRS Master File records, I was able to find about 1,200 organizations using the name of Habitat for Humanity and filing a return within the last three years (there were about 400 additional organizations with no current income data). There were three that exceeded $10 million, 145 with revenues between $1 million and $10 million, 601 between $100,000 and $1 million and 460 reporting less than $100,000 in revenue. Total revenues were $608 million.
The big dogs among the affiliates are Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity (EIN 36-3363171 Form 990), Habitat for Humanity of Collier County (Florida) (EIN 59-1834379 Form 990) and Habitat for Humanity of Jacksonville (EIN 59-2880071 Form 990). The Jacksonville affiliate is notable for accepting US government contracts, which has ususally not be the case for Habitat affiliates, who stay close to the organization's Christian roots.
But it seems to me that after over thirty years in business in the U.S., Habitat for Humanity needs to take stock of what impact it has—and has not—made in addressing housing needs. We've already discussed the problems Habitat has had in achieving its goals of rebuilding after Katrina. But these are part of the larger problems with Habitat's mission and model, at least with respect to its U.S. operations (which are only about 30% of its work worldwide):
Limited impact. After three decades of extensive favorable press, endorsements from five Presidents of both political parties, support from churches of all the major Christian denominations, widespread brand recognition, and donation rates that put it near the top of all U.S. charities, Habitat has not come close to achieving the goal of providing an affordable home to anyone who is willing to work for it. Since its founding in 1976, Habitat for Humanity has built about 66,000 homes in the U.S. It sounds like a lot, but this represents less than two tenths of a percent of the 35 million homes built during that period. Habitat for Humanity has provided some heartwarming volunteering opporunities, but it has not made even a decent dent in the overall problem of affordable housing in the U.S.
Inevitable discimination. As a result of how few homes they are able to build, Habitat U.S. affiliates have always been highly selective about who they work with (I think this is marked contrast to Habitat's approach outside the U.S.). While Habitat sets out principles of non-discrimination, any kind of assistance that is provided to such a select few (when the need is so great) is at significant risk for surreptitious discrimination.
Substandard housing (by US standards). Habitat has from the beginning been committed to building what it calls simple and decent housing, with very specific design criteria, starting with limits on the square footage:
900 square feet for a two-bedroom house
1,070 square feet for a three-bedroom house
1,230 square feet for a four-bedroom house
Back in 1976, according to the US Census, more than one in five new houses in the US (226,000 of them) were less than 1,200 square feet and the median home was a little under 1,600 square feet. But by 2006, only one new house in twenty-five is under 1,200 square feet (only 69,000 were built) and the median new home is in the 2,000 to 2,400 square feet range. So what was simple and decent housing in the U.S. a generation ago is now considerably below the standard. In 1976, volunteering to build a house like this was a neighborly gesture, but in 2006, U.S. Habitat volunteers are building houses they themselves wouldn't dream of living in, and that has to have a negative effect on community-building.
Financial accountability. The other big issue facing Habitat for Humanity, it seems to me, is in the pools of mortage money that each of the U.S. affiliates has custody of. While Habitat raises large amounts of money, it doesn't give houses away. All are sold their owners at estimated cost (including the fair value of donated materials) under no-interest mortgages. As the mortgages are repaid, the affiliates have more mortgage money to work with. But that's a lot of money for grassroots organizations, and there is a significant risk involved considering the huge number of relatively small organizations, which often lack basic accounting controls.