Fuller Forced Out At Habitat For Humanity

January 1, 2005       Jeff Jones      

Last fall, Millard Fuller, founder and president of Habitat for Humanity International, said he had no plans to resign as leader of the international movement he started.

Roughly one year later Fuller has been forced out of his job by the board of directors of the Christian homebuilding ministry. The announcement that Fuller was stepping down came near the end of a tumultuous year for Fuller and the Americus, Ga.-based organization that he co-founded in 1976 with his wife, Linda.

The year included allegations against Fuller by a female employee of inappropriate behavior and a struggle concerning the organization’s future.

The shakeout, now apparently complete, could affect Habitat for years. It is developing a five-year strategic plan that will likely call for an acceleration of home building and increase of operating reserves, officials said.

Habitat created a search committee to find Fuller’s replacement, comprised of current and former board members, representatives of Habitat affiliates and honorary chair, former President Jimmy Carter.

Habitat Board Chairman Rey Ramsey and Fuller said the right things about reaching agreement and were scheduled to appear at an awards ceremony together as this article went to press.

But, getting to this point hasn’t been easy. This past March, Fuller learned from Ramsey that a woman had accused him of touching her neck, shoulder and thigh, and “saying some words she didn’t like” during a ride to the Atlanta airport in February 2003, according to Fuller. Others told Fuller the woman had accused him of saying the word “adultery, which she considers a curse word,” and telling her she had “smooth skin,” Fuller said.

Fuller often travels to and from airports by catching rides with Habitat employees or friends to save money.

Reached by The NonProfit Times, the alleged victim declined to comment, adding she was not making comments “yet.” As a policy, The NonProfit Times does not identify persons who allege inappropriate, sexually based incidents. The woman had been with Habitat for “14 or 15” years and left in June 2004, according to Ramsey.

Fuller, who faced sexual harassment allegations by several women in 1990, which were settled internally, denied anything happened in this allegation.

“It was a totally non-event trip,” Fuller said. “Even if that had happened, while it’s not good conduct, it’s not egregious, criminal activity.”

Fuller has said in previous interviews with The NonProfit Times that he comes from a family of “huggers” and “very affectionate people.”

“I used to go to family reunions and my daddy would go around kissing all the women,” Fuller said in 2003, while talking about the sexual harassment allegations of more than a decade ago.

He said he was “blown away” then by the fact that the women were offended by him giving them hugs or telling one she had beautiful eyes.

“What I learned out of that was that I have to be very, very careful about relationships especially with people of the other sex,” Fuller said.

A source familiar with Habitat said, “A lot of people are un-surprised by the (latest) allegations.”

The allegations surfaced “almost by accident” when the alleged victim talked to someone in personnel in early 2004 and mentioned that the alleged incident had something to do with her leaving, Ramsey said. At that point, calls were made to the organization’s general counsel and then Ramsey. The board hired a New York law firm to independently investigate the incident. Fuller said that he voiced disagreement with that move.

Fuller said he initially suggested that he meet with the woman and Ramsey to talk about the incident, and that he would take a lie detector test, if neccessary. Ramsey, a former practicing attorney, said he and board officers decided that the law required that they not self-investigate.

“I stand by the process” of the investigation, Ramsey said. “It’s a very standard and accepted practice what we did.”

The board initially found he was guilty in April, Fuller said, and then former President Carter got involved. The board members reversed themselves and said they found “insufficient proof” regarding the allegations, according to Fuller.

Ramsey said the board made findings and compromised on some of the language to reach an agreement. He stressed that the board didn’t publish the results of the findings and that President Carter’s role has been misrepresented.

“He wasn’t brought in to beat the board down,” Ramsey said. “The first person who spoke to President Carter was me. I asked him to get involved. He willingly got involved” and agreed to play a mediation role.

Deanna Congileo, Carter’s press secretary, declined to go into details. “President Carter continues to support the mission and fine work of Habitat for Humanity,” Congileo wrote in an email to The NonProfit Times.

Regardless, Fuller and his wife “reluctantly” signed an agreement, giving them salaries for life in exchange for their silence on the issue, Fuller said. Fuller earned a base salary of $79,500, according to Habitat’s latest available Form 990.

“There’s nothing more unseemly than an internal fight in a nonprofit,” Fuller said. “We were trying to avoid that.”

The Fullers changed their minds and decided to void the agreement Oct. 4 and exercised a revocation provision, according to Fuller.

“My wife was just totally upset about it because it felt like they were trying to buy our silence,” Fuller said. “I believe in openness. Everything was a secret. I didn’t like it, and my wife didn’t like it.”

Fuller and Ramsey reached a second agreement Oct. 7. It was a handshake understanding reached after a three-hour talk, according to both men.

Philosophy differences

The allegations were only one part of a year of discord within Habitat.

Fuller and board members engaged in a struggle over the organization’s operating philosophy and future. Fuller expressed hope that the organization would continue to expand worldwide, keep its Christian focus, and pay a new CEO modestly.

“Some on the board think we’re going too fast and they want to slow down,” Fuller said. “That is contrary to the way I’ve always operated. … I have faced this problem from the beginning of this work, of people always hanging on my coattails trying to hold me back.”

Ramsey acknowledged there had been disagreements “on the approach to different things but not on the what” of building many houses at a fast rate.

He balked at the idea of a power struggle, pointing out that all the board members are volunteers.

Ramsey added that the organization is developing a five-year strategy that will likely call for building more homes during this five-year period than the previous plan.

The previous plan had a goal of building Habitat’s 200,000th house, which is scheduled to happen this year (2005), Interim CEO Paul Leonard said.

The plan required Habitat to build an additional 100,000 homes between 2000-2005 and raise an additional $500 million through a capital campaign, on top of the $2.5 billion from affiliates, normal direct mail fundraising, and work with corporations, according to Leonard. The campaign total is now roughly $415 million, Leonard said.

“I would expect the new strategic plan to have another capital campaign,” Leonard said.

Habitat will also work to increase its reserves in the coming years. “The goal is to have a reserve that is three times the average monthly unrestricted cash income,” by 2018, he said. That equates to roughly $21 million, using fiscal 2003 numbers as a reference. Habitat is putting aside 2 percent of the unrestricted income until it meets that goal, he said.

As for the concerns about remaining Christian-focused, Ramsey said “that’s something we all value.” The Christian witness part of the job was stressed at the first meeting of the succession task force, according to Ramsey.

Leonard is scheduled to stay through June 2006. He moved from his home in Davidson, N.C., along with his wife, to become managing director of Habitat in June, and eventually interim CEO. Ramsey just completed an eventful first year as board chairman and sees himself as a “bridge” to the transition and the next strategic plan.

Leonard said he sees his role as improving teamwork at headquarters, holding employees accountable through performance evaluations, strengthening financial and information systems, and playing a significant role in the strategic plan.

“I see us making more of an effort to partner with other groups that can support not only housing but a sustainable community,” Leonard said. For instance, Habitat would focus on housing, and work with other nonprofit organizations that specialize in micro-loans or clean water, he said.

Fuller will remain an employee of Habitat and will draw a salary as long as he continues as founder/president. “I am not bent out of shape about how things have turned out,” Fuller said. He added that although the process has been convoluted, the point that has been reached “is not all bad.”

“Any organization that moves from a founder to the next stage, you encounter some bumpy roads,” Ramsey said. “What I feel good about now is that we are united in moving the organization forward.”