How Many Sectors Does it Take to Build a House?

Reflections on an Extraordinary Tri-Sector Partnership

Note to self: Life goal – At the age of 92, with my life partner by my side, collapse from dehydration during a week-long Habitat for Humanity building blitz across Canada.

Jimmy Carter is an extraordinary individual. This situation befell the ex-president in July during a build in Winnipeg, Canada. He’d been taking part in a Habitat for Humanity Canada initiative to build 150 homes across the country for its sesquicentennial. I had the opportunity to participate in the build in Edmonton, where Jimmy had been working the previous day, and I can say with certainty that when you have an inspirational nonagenarian who’s working harder than you are, you try to step up your game.

Image courtesy of Habitat for Humanity International

My reason for being there was to take part in the latest engagement of the long-standing partnership between Habitat for Humanity and The Dow Chemical Company. That week, volunteers participated in The Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project, a build event that the Carters have been a part of for over 30 years with Habitat working to build affordable housing, alongside low-income families.

Though I spent two days working on the build site adjacent to the one where Jimmy was hard at work, it gave me a chance to take a step back and marvel at all the energy generated by this diverse partnership as it unfolded around me. Habitat for Humanity has a natural ability to impart a sense of unity and enthusiasm for hard work (a better word is labor) upon its volunteers and many stakeholders, much of which is attributable to its deft planning and organization.

But it was the convergence of so many strategic elements that made this encounter the epitome of partnership. It’s commonly known that promoting cross-sector partnership is a personal obsession, which has manifested itself in the direction of my organization, PYXERA Global. I’m now compelled to break down why this particular experience in Edmonton was so special, and why it should be highlighted for other collaborators to understand and emulate.

A Partnership Grand Slam
This was a true public-private-social sector partnership in the sense that it was all about teamwork. First, the governments in every province in Canada where these builds occurred offered land and other forms of support to clear a path for progress. Second, there was a strong level of support from the private sector. Dow, among various other contributing companies, dedicates funding, materials such as energy-saving insulation products, as well as the time of their employee participants. Third, Habitat for Humanity International is a global nonprofit consisting of many local and regional affiliates, each of which is connected to a network of local organizations that also bring support and contributions to area builds.

Beyond tri-sector involvement, the combination of skills-based and traditional volunteerism was strong. Many participating volunteer builders are private citizens who believe in affordable housing and are prepared to contribute either their skilled or unskilled labor. Finally, you have the families themselves, each of whom commits to investing at least 500 hours of sweat equity into their homes. Taken together, this confluence of constructive energy was everything that we say a public-private-social sector partnership can and should be.

The Magic of Community and Purpose
Habitat has an ability to quickly create a sense of community. It was quite stunning, actually, how rapidly we all became friends and dependent on one another to make this process work. Shaping this type of environment comes from a combination of elements.

John Holm, Deirdre White, and Renay Loper at the build site in Edmonton.

Habitat is phenomenally good at creating purpose. At the time of your arrival, you’re told that you’re not just going to build a house. You have a larger purpose. Project participants are essentially told, “This is about solving the affordable housing problem — Here’s concretely what you can do about it.” Mark Rogers, CEO of Habitat Canada, had this to say, “Selfless servanthood can change the world. It always has and always will.”

Project participants are essentially told, ‘This is about solving the affordable housing problem — Here’s concretely what you can do about it.’

Meanwhile, it’s important to recognize that behind the scenes, extensive planning goes into these builds. It’s not just about keeping people busy, but about having a solid understanding of how each contribution will add up to a finished product. This level of organization requires Habitat to marry a top-down approach of marshalling the necessary resources with a ground-up approach of leveraging diverse skill-sets once every actor is in place.

To assemble the right resources, a convener needs to appeal to each strategic partner in terms of the things that are important to them. For a systemic challenge like affordable housing, there’s an argument for anyone and everyone to be involved. We often talk about solvable problems being those that we’ve seen solved on smaller scales, with tools and resources that we know exist. Affordable housing is a good example.

In a short period, a motivated group that has the right resources and the guidance to focus its energy can achieve impressive, tangible results. Our achievement over just a few days felt like a quantum leap forward, which was deeply satisfying for everyone involved.

Accelerating the Impact
I understand how a results-driven project like a week-long home build for low-income families lends itself to drumming up enthusiasm, but when you then introduce the element of star power, the level of support quickly reaches a critical mass. Conceptually, a partnership with a strong framework and the necessary players and resources in place may meet textbook standards, but it’s important never to undervalue how inspirational leadership can accelerate the impact.

Conceptually, a partnership with a strong framework and the necessary players and resources in place may meet textbook standards, but it’s important never to undervalue how inspirational leadership can accelerate the impact.

Why were there 800 people in Edmonton committed to this build? To be sure, interest was partially due to Habitat’s outreach and reputation, but if it was Habitat as a standalone convener, I don’t think the numbers would have been as dramatic. People signed on because this is The Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. Carter is a leader who deeply understands what the problem actually is, and is altogether devoted to doing what he can to solve it. Some of that may be nailing a board or cutting rebar, but his “selfless servanthood,” as Rogers put it, includes the use of his significant influence. This kind of influence draws other stars, too. Country musician Garth Brooks was also present, and he offered his perspective: “The greatest thing you can do is for someone you’ll never know.”

It was a rewarding experience and a heartwarming community to be a part of. I’m convinced that armed with the awareness of this partnership’s building blocks, a resourceful and engaged global community can recreate that intangible magic and apply it to any of our biggest challenges.

At the end of a long day’s work, Jimmy Carter summed up the essence of Habitat with a simple explanation, “We don’t give anything away at Habitat except love and affection and concern and help.”

Feature image courtesy of The Dow Chemical Company.

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  1. Margarita C. Battle says:

    How moving! How wonderful! I am truly moved to witness the great possibilities and actual impact of your work! Congratulations, spread the word and the love!