a day without dignity:
This post is a contribution to A Day Without Dignity, a counter-campaign to the A Day Without Shoes campaign designed to focus attention on the dignity of those in need and the need to focus our efforts on empowering the poor rather than providing handouts. You can read other posts about it here, and I encourage you to write, tweet, and talk to your Facebook friends about A Day Without Dignity as well.
Instead of focusing on the well-documented problems with donating goods-in-kind, undermining local industry, and disguising marketing as social good, I wanted to use this post to talk about an organization that I think gets most things right: Habitat for Humanity. In looking at this example, there's a lot to learn about acting locally, building relationships and understanding among people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and empowering people who want to volunteer in their own communities around the world. Full disclosure: I have been a Habitat volunteer since 1997, and I currently serve as a committee chair for a local Habitat affiliate. I am, in other words, slightly biased.
Habitat for Humanity is "A nonprofit, ecumenical Christian housing organization building simple, decent, affordable housing in partnership with people in need." Habitat builds houses in conjunction with families who could otherwise not afford homes, then sell those houses to the family with a no-interest loan that the families pay off over a standard mortgage term (typically 30 years). Here's why I think the Habitat model is a strong one:
- It is local. Habitat International is there to provide guidance and support, but fundraising, planning, and construction all happen through local affiliates. This model avoids the "one-size-doesn't-fit-all" problem and allows local affiliates a great deal of flexibility. For example, our affiliate is located in metro Atlanta, where there is a huge foreclosure problem. Thanks to support from the county, we are able to purchase and renovate foreclosed homes. It improves neighborhoods, lessens the problem of empty housing and blight, and gets families into safe, secure, decent homes.
- It's based on partnership. Once a family is selected for the program, they become partners with their local Habitat affiliate. This means that they have certain rights and responsibilities, one of which is to help build other people's houses and another of which is to help build their own. Habitat houses are not handouts - the families pay for their homes just like any other homeowner. Moreover, there is a lot of pride and dignity that comes from owning and living in a home that you put a lot of sweat into constructing or renovating.
- It builds relationships. For many Habitat volunteers, building on the home site is the first time they have actually worked alongside poor people, doing exactly the same tasks without any kind of management hierarchy in place. It can be an incredibly eye-opening experience to hear a low-income individual talk about the struggles his family faces, or her desire for her kids to have a better life, and is a great way to bust stereotypes (eg, "Poor people are lazy.") and create real relationships.
- It supports volunteers helping their own communities worldwide. There are Habitat affiliates all over the world, and affiliates build culturally-appropriate homes from locally-available materials, thus contributing to local economies and improving life for families worldwide. To support these efforts, for every home built in the US and other wealthy countries, the local affiliate donates to an international affiliate, thus ensuring that those affiliates will have adequate resources to continue to construct and sell homes.
- It provides home ownership opportunities to those who lack access. Habitat families are carefully selected for the program. They have to be able to save money, pay a down payment, and prove that they earn enough in a steady job to afford a mortgage. Where Habitat is different from traditional banks, however, is in the fact that we offer no-interest, lower-cost mortgages. Because of donations and volunteers, families don't pay many labor costs for their homes - the cost is the land, the materials, and some specialized labor costs (electricians and the like). This means that Habitat can provide opportunities to people who are excluded from traditional home ownership paths. It's not just limited to the stereotypical working poor. In our area, we have many refugee families who scrimp and save and are thrilled to own their own homes after years of sacrifice and the suffering they endured in their home countries. Likewise, many of our partner families are practicing Muslims whose religious commitments require them to only take out no-interest loans. Habitat is a Christian organization, but is not a proselytizing one, and access to the program is open to people of all faiths or no faith at all. There aren't many other places around here that working poor Muslim families can get access to a fair, interest-free mortgage.