Habitat and Fuller Call Truce On Name

July 1, 2005       Robert Ford      

What’s in a name? The answer is a lawsuit, if you’re Millard Fuller, the fired founder of Habitat for Humanity International (HFH) in Americus, Ga. It’s especially the answer if you’ve formed a new organization that executives at HFH believe can be mistaken for your former one and it’s not only in the same town but right up the road.

However, Fuller decided to change the new organization’s name to the Fuller Center for Housing, rather than challenge the suit.

HFH filed suit to get Fuller to drop the original name of his new organization – Building Habitat – on the grounds that potential donors and volunteers would confuse the two, potentially causing HFH to suffer a decline in donations. Before Fuller changed the name of his new housing organization, it had raised more than $2 million for HFH affiliates and other nonprofit housing groups.

HFH raises more than $400 million a year in public donations, with total yearly revenue in excess of $770 million.

Fuller, who along with his wife Linda founded HFH in 1976, was fired as its president in January. In terminating Fuller’s association with the organization, the HFH board of directors cited allegations of sexual harassment of an employee and “conflictive behaviors during and after the investigation of the allegations.”

Fuller called them “false allegations.”

Shortly after his termination from HFH, Fuller, Linda and some friends created Building Habitat, which, according to its articles of incorporation, is a nonprofit that will “implement the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Georgia and throughout the United States and world … to create a better human habitat for economically disadvantaged people … to support Habitat for Humanity International, its affiliates and any other charitable organizations.” Fuller incorporated Building Habitat on Feb. 25.

“I thought it (Building Habitat) was an excellent name,” Fuller said. ‘Habitat is a generic word like cola and I didn’t think anyone could trademark it. I thought it was ridiculous that they would sue us.”

Fuller said he did not think the suit was a “good expenditure of money” on their (HFH) part. So, Building Habitat’s board of directors met and told Fuller they did not believe the “name meant much and they convinced me to call it the Fuller Center for Housing. I guess I’m a certain brand,” Fuller said. “For 30 years I’ve been on the circuit talking to tens of thousands of people,” he said.

“We were disappointed that the suit happened,” said David Snell, secretary of the Fuller Center for Housing. “We believed we had a defensible position.” Ben Easterlin of the Atlanta law firm King & Spalding LLP provided his services pro bono for Building Habitat, Snell said.

Because Fuller’s organization was receiving free legal advice, “we weren’t spending much money,” Snell said. “But our big concern was that Habitat for Humanity was. We just don’t want anymore distractions and wan t to go about building homes for folks.”

“We just hope this will go away,” Snell said of the suit. “HFH has a huge infrastructure and we don’t want to compete with them,” when it comes to raising money or building homes, Snell added.

“We had no desire to hurt HFH in any way,” Fuller explained.

In its suit, which was filed on May 10, HFH accused Fuller of trademark infringement, unfair competition in violation of federal law, violating the Georgia Model Trademark Act and the state law prohibiting deceptive trade practices. Fuller changed the name of the organization from Building Habitat to the Fuller Center for Housing on May 28.

Additionally, HFH accused Fuller of starting to set up his new endeavor while still employed by HFH.

Prior to filing the suit, HFH sent a letter to Fuller asking him to stop using the word Habitat for his new organization. He didn’t and the suit was filed.

Chris Clarke, HFH spokesman, said changing the name to the Fuller Center for Housing went a long way toward bringing the issue to a close. “It was a very positive step,” Clarke said. At press time, lawyers for the two sides were negotiating the details for ending the suit.

One of the key issues that still needed to be worked out was the amount of compensation, if any, that Fuller’s organization would pay HFH. In the suit, HFH lawyers said the organization should be compensated for money raised by Fuller that would have gone to HFH had donors not been confused by the similar names.

Despite whatever friction between HFH and Fuller might exist because of the firing and the suit, Clarke said HFH is happy to see that the Fuller Center for Housing will be raising funds to donate to HFH’s affiliates. “We are happy for anyone who is willing to address the need for housing for the economically disadvantaged,” Clarke added.

HFH will be dedicating its 200,000th home on Aug. 15 in Knoxville, Tenn., Clarke said. And, later that day it will be dedicating its 200,001st home in an as yet unannounced Asian country, Clarke added.

The first grant awarded by the Fuller Center for Housing was for $200,000 and went to the Columbus, Ga., HFH affiliate, Fuller said.

“We’re also talking to a group in North Korea and Nigeria about building houses there,” Fuller added. “I’m 70 years old and I don’t feel that I’m through.”

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