Habitat after Millard Fuller: a response

by DG Martin

What has happened to Habitat for Humanity since the departure of its founder, Millard Fuller?

Since its founding by Fuller in 1976, Habitat has built more than 200,000 homes worldwide and engaged the efforts of hundreds of thousands of volunteers and new homeowners.

Fuller’s charisma and vision were critical to Habitat’s success. So when the Habitat governing board dismissed him early last year, many wondered about the organization’s future. However, after a period of transitional leadership under interim CEO Paul Leonard, Fuller’s permanent replacement Jonathan Reckford has taken charge of an organization that appears to be stable and focused on the future.

Leonard’s new book, Music of a Thousand Hammers: Inside Habitat for Humanity, reviews recent developments at the top level of Habitat’s management, including Leonard’s version of the tragic and disruptive fallout with Fuller.

‘ He also sets out a number of tough challenges Habitat must meet, now that the crisis around Fuller’s departure has passed ‘— such as finding affordable land, adapting Habitat’s operations to the cultures of other countries, and managing the fund raising competition among local Habitat organizations, national groups and the international organization.

Leonard’s concerns, however, come from someone who is optimistic and enthusiastic about Habitat’s future.

In fact, his book is even more an inside look at himself than at Habitat.

It is really a love story, one that tells how Paul Leonard and his wife Judy fell in love with Habitat, its mission and its work at the local and international level.

But it was not love at first sight.

In 1986, when Leonard was president of the John Crosland Company in Charlotte, he turned down an invitation to volunteer with Habitat.

‘“I was helping to complete 300 to 400 units of affordable housing each year,’” he writes. His reaction to Habitat’s building of one house at a time with volunteer labor was, ‘“Maybe it will make you feel good. But you are kidding yourself if you think it will have any significant impact.’”

What changed Leonard from a skeptic into a Habitat activist? It takes a book to explain why Paul and Judy Leonard came to give almost every spare minute to Habitat work in the Lake Norman area and with Habitat groups and building projects across our country and on almost every continent.

Leonard credits Mooresville businessman Bob Wilson with persuading him in 1991 to open the door for Habitat to contact Centex, the homebuilding company that had acquired Crosland (and Leonard). Centex’s CEO agreed to help and told Leonard to coordinate his company’s efforts to sponsor 20 Habitat homes.

What hooked Leonard, however, were the experiences of actually building the homes. He says that, ‘“more than any other person, Henry Eddy is responsible for cementing my relationship with Habitat.’” A retired plumber, known as the ‘“father of Habitat in Mooresville,’” Eddy taught Leonard how to be a volunteer house leader.

Soon Leonard himself retired from Centex, and Eddy persuaded him to serve on a local Habitat board. At about the same time in 1995, because of his experience in finance and homebuilding, Leonard was elected to the international governing board of Habitat.

He and Judy became world travelers to attend board meetings and work on Habitat projects in other countries as well. Almost immediately Leonard was asked to serve as treasurer. Eventually, he became chair of the top governing board.

As chair, Leonard pushed for stronger management controls and accountability, sometimes differing with Millard Fuller, whose magnificent inspired ideas were not always grounded in business reality. Not long after Leonard completed his term as chair, the differences between Fuller and the board became irreconcilable. Leonard agreed to serve first as ‘“manager’” and then as interim CEO.

Unfortunately, the modest Leonard does not give all the details of how Habitat was ‘“fixed’” after Fuller’s departure. But it will be clear to those who know Leonard, that this very modesty, along with his quiet, firm management style and his love for Habitat, helped the organization grow stronger in the face of a challenge that could have destroyed it.’ 

Those who love Habitat and its mission of service will find A Thousand Hammers to be an inspirational and prophetic guide.