Habitat chief urges commitment, flexibility

Jonathan Reckford
Jonathan Reckford

Ret Boney

RALEIGH, N.C. — In “times of great uncertainty,” leaders of Habitat for Humanity affiliates must be true to their “sense of calling,” look for opportunity in crisis, and be open to change.

That was the charge from Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International, who spoke to the heads of 19 Habitat affiliates from across the U.S. during a leadership-training course designed and administered by the Institute for Nonprofits at N.C. State University in Raleigh, N.C., in late October.

The two-day session was part of the Institute’s Achieving Collaborative Capacity for Executive Success program, a leadership-certificate program, designed specifically for Habitat affiliates, that spans seven months and includes online classes and two campus visits.

Habitat overall has weathered the recession fairly well, said Reckford, in part because of the one-time influx of federal stimulus dollars to purchase and renovate foreclosed homes.

Despite the recession, Habitat homeowners continued to make their mortgage payments, in part because of the financial training they receive, and because they have purchased modest homes with fixed 30-year mortgages, rather than more complicated loans, he said.

Over 700 Habitat ReStores, which sell salvaged building materials, netted a total of $80 million in 2010 that is being used to further the organization’s mission.

And in-kind gifts and a strong network of volunteers helped leverage Habitat’s resources, Reckford said.

The result: Over the past five years, most of which were recessionary, the Habitat family has more than tripled to 81,000 from 25,000 a year the number of homes built, repaired or upgraded, Reckford said, and last year provided training or support to more than 150,000 people.

Habitat recently built its 500,000th home, in Kenya, and started its 500,001st home, in New Jersey.

But Habitat did not emerge from the downturn unscathed.

Reckford cut the costs and staff at Habitat International headquarters by 10 percent “to protect field staff,” he said, and was forced to “choose not to do some things and to do other things differently.”

That has meant, for example, shrinking to 80 from 100 the number of countries in which Habitat has a presence, a focusing of effort that Reckford said has led to growth.

And as part of a strategic-planning process that began recently and will wrap up in June, Reckford expects the organization, while not changing its overall direction, to focus on several big issues.

With financial resources now representing the “biggest risk” for Habitiat, said Reckford, significant energy will be devoted to developing sustainable funding sources.

And because resources are limited, the organization must determine which products and services to offer, and where, in an effort to provide the most value.

Advocacy will continue to be a focus, particularly in the area of tenure rights, which is a significant problem in foreign countries where weak property rights and protections threaten homeownership.

And Habitat will evaluate its growing involvement in disaster-related activities, Reckford said, which began in large part with the 2,500 houses it built on the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and now represent a quarter of its work globally.

“We’re focused on shelter,” he said. “That hasn’t changed. We took things on beyond that because the need was there. Now we need to prioritize.”

As local-affiliate leaders face their own challenges in their own communities, Reckford encouraged his charges to “hold on tight to our sense of calling,” particularly during difficult times.

Times of crisis can be opportunities for innovation and exponential improvement, he said, noting that the dramatic ramp-up required for the Gulf Coast building spree forced Habitat to isolate and eliminate the bottlenecks that threatened such a massive scale-up in production.

That fire-drill exercise resulted in permanent, positive changes, said Reckford, including how families are screened and selected and which parts of the building process are done off-site and on-site.

And the availability of federal stimulus dollars, born of the recession, allowed Habitat to do more work with foreclosed properties, an opportunity that has accelerated its move into neighborhood revitalization.

“Let’s be religious about our principles, but not about our tactics,” Reckford said. “We need new thinking.”

It’s that type of flexibility, and openness to change, that Reckford believes is necessary but concedes is difficult.

“Change is hard in all organizations,” he said. “And the more mission-driven an organization is, the harder change is because people care so much.”

But the danger of resisting change is missed opportunities at a time of “breathtaking need,” he said.

“The urgency for change is the billions of people living in substandard housing,” Reckford said. “That’s a great responsibility – and opportunity.”

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