Millard Fuller, Co-Founder of Habitat for Humanity, Dead At 74

February 3, 2009       Mark Hrywna      

Morris Dees may not remember who sang the old blues song that reminds him of his old friend Millard Fuller, but one line in the song sticks with him: “He loved the life he lived, and he lived the life he loved.”

Fuller, who co-founded Habitat for Humanity with his wife Linda and The Fuller Center for Housing after leaving Habitat during a dispute with the board, died early Tuesday at the age of 74 after a brief illness. In addition to his wife, Fuller is survived by four children.

Fuller had been ill for several weeks with a severe chest cold, said Holly Chapman, vice president of development and communication at the center. He was on antibiotics and sought treatment of a doctor, but still went to work. “We certainly didn’t expect this,” she said. Fuller died at about 3 a.m. in the ambulance on the way to the hospital in Albany, Ga.

Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Mobile, Ala., knew Fuller for 50 years. He said Fuller “was always in the corner fighting for those less fortunate, who had few champions.” Fuller, whose father ran a small grocery store, had a chance to see poor people daily as he grew up in a mill town in Alabama along the Georgia border. “He would say, if you live in a shack, you think of yourself as a shack liver, and you and your children don’t do well,” Dees said, offering stories of people who moved into Habitat houses over the years and seeing their children become bankers or lawyers.

Dees calls Habitat the most successful charity founded in the last century. “It gives everyone an opportunity to join hands for social and economic justice,” he said.

The two attended Auburn University together before co-founding Fuller and Dees Marketing Group in 1960. Fuller made his first $1 million before he turned 30.

Dees bought out Fuller in 1965 before selling the direct mail book publishing company to The Los Angeles Times in 1970 and starting the Law Center. The Fullers eventually found Koinonia Farm, where the idea of Habitat would be born with founder Clarence Jordan.

Created in 1976, Habitat for Humanity International today has more than 1,700 affiliates in the United States, generating revenues of almost $1.5 billion, along with more than 500 international affiliates. The Fullers, however, have not been associated with the Atlanta-based nonprofit for several years.

Fuller was dismissed by Habitat’s board in January 2005, parting ways due to major differences about the organization’s vision and operating philosophy, amid accusations that he sexually harassed an employee. By April, the couple founded the Fuller Center for Housing, originally called Building Habitat until Habitat for Humanity filed a trademark infringement lawsuit.

Fuller founded the center because he still had that same passion that sparked Habitat, Dees said, and even ended up working with many Habitat affiliates. What saddens him almost as much as Fuller’s death is the bureaucracy that he believes Habitat has become since Fuller left the organization.

“When they moved out of Americus, they moved the heart out of it,” he said. “There are a lot of high-priced executive who don’t have Millard’s passion and are treating affiliates more like Burger King franchisees,” said Dees, describing Fuller’s biggest talent as a cheerleader, inspiring others to go out and build homes. “There’s no one at Habitat with that passion and heart,” he said. “Sure they want to do right, but they don’t have Millard’s passion. They treated him real shabby and in the end Habitat will become another nonprofit bureaucracy, more concerned with their benefits and 401(k)s than the reasons why Millard started it,” Dees said.

“I’ve seen it happen at other nonprofits, becoming so bureaucratic they lose sight of the reason why they exist,” he said.

Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor with the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and former director of the Corporation for National and Community Service, said the nonprofit sector has lost one of its greatest innovators. Social entrepreneur, a term often mentioned in recent years, probably was not even in use at the time Fuller was building Habitat. “Everything the textbooks say about what social entrepreneurship is, he was doing,” Lenkowsky said, adding, “His accomplishments as a successful entrepreneur are well worth emulating.”

Habitat is a “throwback to charities we had many more of in previous years,” Lenkowsky said, ones that incorporated the kinds of virtues that many feel have gone out of fashion or are not as effective today, like self-help, individual responsibility, and faith. “It shows there’s still a lot of life in these older approaches to help the needy,” he said.

“What people often don’t understand is Habitat has grown way beyond a U.S. organization and now works globally, developing housing and shelter in some of the poorest countries in the world, as well as here in the U.S.,” said Christopher Stone, faculty director at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University. “It’s certainly rare that we see an organization go from startup to such a global reach in the time that Habitat has,” he said.

Lost in the ranks of entrepreneurial organizations is the pioneering role volunteers played in Habitat, Stone said. Big nonprofits today have moved toward a more professional model and Habitat figured out early how to really mobilize the power of volunteers and achieving mission.

Habitat also was, in more subtle ways, an extraordinary example of generating meaning as well as goods and services. Everyone at Habitat — recipients of services to volunteers and donors and staff — was able to bring meaning to lives of those involved with organizations, in addition to the concrete benefits that people gained.

Habitat’s growth took off after former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, became involved in 1984, bringing national visibility and interest to the organization. The couple continues to lead the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project for Habitat for one week each year.

In a statement, President Carter offered his condolences to the family and said: “Millard Fuller was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known. He used his remarkable gifts as an entrepreneur for the benefit of millions of needy people around the world by providing them with decent housing. As the founder of Habitat for Humanity and later the Fuller Center, he was an inspiration to me, other members of our family, and an untold number of volunteers who worked side-by-side under his leadership.”

Habitat Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Reckford described Fuller “a true giant” in the affordable housing movement. “Millard Fuller was a force of nature who turned a simple idea into an international organization that has helped more than 300,000 families move from deplorable housing into simple, decent homes they helped build and can afford to buy and live in,” he said.

“Millard Fuller’s drive and relentless commitment to affordable housing captured people’s imagination and changed lives around the world,” said J. Ronald Terwilliger, chair of Habitat’s International Board of Directors. “His inspiration lives on in Habitat’s work and through its employees, volunteers, partner families and supporters.”

Fuller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon an American civilian, by former President Bill Clinton in 1996. In 2002, the Fullers were awarded the Bronze Medallion by the Points of Light Foundation. They also have been honored, along with 19 other founders of other U.S. organizations and movements, on The Extra Mile, the Points of Light Pathway in Washington, D.C. Among his many other accolades, Fuller was selected as the 2003 Executive of the Year by The NonProfit Times.