Fullers Continue Fight For Habitat

May 1, 2005       Robert Ford      

A struggle for the hearts, minds and millions of donor dollars has thrust the Americus, Ga.-based Habitat for Humanity International (HFH) onto the public stage.

The founder of Habitat, Millard Fuller, was officially dismissed as the organization’s leader by its board of directors in January. He calls the struggle a case of corporate efficiency versus God’s work. As a result of the board’s action, Donald Mosley, one of the founding members of the Habitat board, submitted his resignation. “I am retiring from this particular fight,” he said.

The board’s executive committee voted Jan. 31 to terminate Fuller’s employment. The dismissal was affirmed by the organization’s Board of Directors at a March 8 meeting in Cape Town, South Africa. Mosley did not attend the meeting and resigned on March 11.

Shortly after Fuller’s dismissal, his supporters put up a Web site, www.habitatpartnersunite.com, which includes a petition calling for his reinstatement. At press time, more than 4,600 people had signed the petition.

While the tempest has resulted in the resignation of one board member and predictions by Fuller’s supporters of impending financial doom, financial data released by Habitat shows that those predictions have not come to pass. Habitat reported that in February 2005, when the battle between Fuller’s supporters and the Habitat board was at a fevered pitch, the organization raised $11.6 million from individual donors, an increase of $600,000 compared to the previous February.

Both Fullers, Millard and his wife, Linda were separated from HFH last August and while there was not an uproar from supporters at the time, fundraising did not suffer even then.

Rey Ramsey, chairman of Habitat’s board of directors, said fundraising is up 10 percent versus predictions for this year. Habitat operates on a fiscal year of July 1 to June 30. During the period July, 2003 to February 2004, the organization took in $84.4 million from individuals. During the same period this fiscal year, it received $94.4 million from individual donors. “We want to put our brand out there, expand it and leverage it into more donations,” Ramsey said.

Habitat was listed in the November 1, 2004 issue of The NonProfit Times as number 11 in the NPT 100, with total revenue during fiscal year 2003 of $772,690,000 and $404,048,000 in public support.

Because of all the publicity from the dismissal of the Fullers, Habitat reached out to its major donors to judge their reactions. Ramsey said 95 percent responded that they would continue to support the organization. The organization’s three major corporate donors said they would be increasing their financial support, according to Ramsey. And Whirlpool, the organization’s largest corporate sponsor, announced on its Web site and on country singer Reba McEntire’s Web site, that for the second year in a row it would be supporting her tour with $1 from each ticket sold going to Habitat. The tour was announced on Feb. 28 during the height of the tempest.

In addition to continuing to raise money for its mission, Habitat recently completed a campaign that raised $40 million to support reconstruction in the area of Southeast Asia that was struck by the tsunami, Ramsey said. “This is an unprecedented level of fundraising for us,” he said, “and the first time we have done something like this.”

Fuller’s firing came after a female employee made allegations of inappropriate behavior, an allegation Fuller strongly denies.

In a statement Mosley released after his resignation, he stated, “I believe Millard was wrongfully accused a year ago of sexual harassment. This very serious charge launched the conflict that has led to both Millard and Linda being fired by the IBOD.”

Ramsey said there are 28 board members from 15 countries, so the dismissal was not made by any one segment of the board as has been alleged by some of Fuller’s supporters.

The alleged victim reportedly told Habitat officials that Fuller allegedly said something inappropriate during a February 2003 car ride to the Atlanta airport. Fuller said in an interview that not only didn’t the alleged incident take place, a report by Habitat issued in August 2004, after an investigation reported there was insufficient proof of inappropriate conduct.

“There is no truth whatsoever about the allegations of sexual harassment,” Fuller said. In his resignation statement, Mosley added, “Because of my long association with Habitat, I was contacted by at least a dozen staff people (mostly women) who also felt that he had been falsely accused.” Mosley also revealed in his letter that Fuller took and passed a lie detector test, although he did not say who administered the test.

Through the years there have been a number of allegations about Fuller’s conduct with women. In a January 1, 2005 issue of The NonProfit Times , it was reported that in a previous interview when asked about questions concerning sexual harassment, Fuller said he comes from a family of “huggers,” and “very affectionate people.” He also said he was surprised that women were offended because he gave them hugs.

Fuller claims that not only was the most recent accusation baseless, but that his and his wife Linda’s ouster from the organization was because people with a corporate mentality have taken over the board of directors and they are not as devoted to the original Christian mission of Habitat.

Rev. David Haley, board president of the Halifax/Northampton HFH affiliate in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., said there is “an overall concern that the leadership that will replace Millard doesn’t have the same level of commitment. They are not as passionate as Millard. When Habitat was formed, it was as a Christian ministry. But now I see it becoming more secularized.”

Haley was among the more than 4,600 people who signed the petition on the support Millard Fuller Web site. He said the board of directors of the Halifax/Northampton affiliate had voted to ask the IBOD to reinstate Fuller as the organization’s leader.

He said that he believes that Habitat for Humanity International will suffer financially from the divisive struggle. However, the 1,900 affiliates worldwide will go on, Haley said. “We are grassroots organizations. But the negative PR will hurt us all somewhat.”

Ramsey said that at no point prior to his dismissal did Fuller raise the issue of the organization becoming more secular. “There is not a shred of evidence that we are moving away from the ministry … those charges are without any factual basis.” As a matter of fact, “I find these charges surprising,” Ramsey said.

“We are just finishing up our last five-year plan in which we promised that we would be in 100 countries,” Ramsey said. The board is in the process of drafting a new five-year plan that “will call for us to build more houses than at any other period in our history. It’s a bold strategic plan,” Ramsey said. The draft should be ready by the board of directors’ November meeting, which will be the last with Ramsey as its chair. There is a two-year term limit on board chairs and Ramsey’s expires in November. Ramsey added the board hopes to be able to select a permanent chief executive officer. Paul Leonard has been serving as interim CEO since last summer.

Fuller said it was a philosophical difference regarding expansion of Habitat into more countries that really led to his dismissal. He said that he wanted to take Habitat into each of the world’s 190 countries and the board disagreed.

“So here we are in 100 countries and the board says, ‘then let’s not go into any more, because we have limited resources and should consolidate,” Fuller said.

“If you are treating Habitat for Humanity as a corporate house building organization, then you need to consolidate,’’ Fuller said. “But, what if you are a ministry? What if you are a movement and you are selling an idea, and the idea is that everybody in the world should have a decent place to live? If you have this idea, then you have to go everywhere in the world to plant that idea. So you run into this philosophic area, that you’ve got on the one hand a mentality that wants to consolidate and make it more efficient, but if you are dealing with a movement then you want to keep expanding and going into more places.”

As an example, Fuller cited a plan to launch a Habitat project in the Cook Islands, which are located in the South Pacific. He said a man in Phoenix, Ariz., who had developed a relationship with the people in the Cook Islands, was willing to use his money to pay for a portion of the project. But, the people who have taken over Habitat say they have a strategic plan and the Cook Islands are not in that plan. They believe if they stick to one area and build more houses where they already have some, it will be more efficient and they will get a bigger bang for their buck,” Fuller said. “This is your fundamental difference in philosophy. If you are a movement and you believe you are being guided in this work by the Holy Spirit, then you want to go to the Cook Islands. You don’t want to write those people off.”

Fuller said he is not sure where he and his wife will go from here, however he did say they would continue to move forward. He has a full slate of speaking engagements before affiliates throughout the country, local churches, and civic groups. He also said he would continue to work with all the thousands of people “who didn’t fire me.”

Mosley said that even though he is no longer on the board of directors, he will continue to raise money for Habitat and continue to promote its message.