Millard Fuller (born 1935) is the founder of Habitat for Humanity International, an organization staffed by volunteers that was created to help those in need purchase a home of their own.
Millard Fuller was a millionaire by the age of 29, and has experienced the "American Dream." But more importantly, he has made it his life's work to pass that dream on, especially through his work with Habitat for Humanity International. This need to serve came upon him when he almost lost his family and his health to the rigors and pressures of the business world. Although the Atlanta Constitution once identified Fuller as the lowest paid among the top executives of the country's one hundred largest charities, it does not seem to bother him in the least.
Fuller, who holds a B.S. in economics and a law degree, had a strong entrepreneurial streak in him from the beginning. As a child in Lanett, Alabama, he fattened and sold a pig, and then used the profits to buy and sell more small livestock. Certain experiences in his childhood also seemed to foreshadow his future. His mother, Estin Cook Fuller, died when he was three years old. His father, Render Alexander Fuller, later married Eunice Stephens. His father and stepmother had two sons and owned a grocery store. When Millard was about ten, his father bought 400 acres of farmland. An elderly couple lived in a small, rickety building on the land. One of the first things that Fuller's father did was to purchase materials and help the couple rebuild their home. In a way, this was Millard Fuller's first brush with destiny.
Fuller continued his entrepreneurial ways in high school, raising beef cattle and earning enough to pay for his college expenses. He graduated from Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, in 1957. He then went to law school at the University of Alabama. There, he was joined in his entrepreneurial ventures by friend and a fellow law student, Morris S. Dees, Jr. They ran a direct mail fund raising operation that sold items to schools and nonprofit organizations that they could in turn sell for more money to earn a profit. They also invested in real estate near the school, buying, repairing and then renting out a number of buildings. The two were earning up to $50,000 a year between them before they even finished law school. During this time, in 1959, Fuller also married his college sweetheart, Linda Caldwell. They eventually had four children: Christopher, Kimberly, Faith, and Georgia.
Fuller served a brief stint in the United States Army in 1960, the same year he received his LL.B. and passed the Alabama bar exam. Shortly thereafter, Fuller and Dees started their own law office in Montgomery, Alabama. Still, they put more energy into their entrepreneurial projects than their legal ones. They began publishing cookbooks, starting with Favorite Recipes of Home Economics Teachers (1963), and eventually started their own imprint, The Favorite Recipes Press. After two years, they folded their legal practice and were the largest publisher of cookbooks in the United States.
Things were not idyllic in the Fuller household, however. Fuller had a severe breathing disorder, among other health problems, which his doctors believed were stress-related. By November of 1964, he realized his symptoms had spread into his relationship with his family as well. His wife abruptly left for New York City to seek the counsel of a pastor and examine her commitment to her marriage. That event was Fuller's wake-up call. He followed his wife to New York and they had many soul-searching conversations.
The couple finally decided they would sell almost everything they owned. According to the Shirley Barnes of the Chicago Tribune, they returned home to Montgomery to "sell their home and give away their possessions, donating the proceeds to mission projects worldwide and church-related organizations." Fuller also sold out his share of the business to his partner, and donated the proceeds of that sale to humanitarian causes. Dees eventually followed Fuller's lead; he sold the business and cofounded the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971.
The Fuller family moved to Koinonia Farm, "Koinonia" taken from the Greek word for "fellowship." The farm was founded in 1942 to be a space for racial equality and the common sharing of material goods. Residents had only enough possessions to support a meager lifestyle. Fuller met Clarence Jordan, a Bible scholar and author of "The Cotton Patch Gospel," at the farm. Jordan was soon to wield great influence on Fuller's life.
Beginning in 1966, Fuller was a fund-raiser for Tougaloo College, a small, church-funded, and predominantly African-American school in Tougaloo, Mississippi. Though based in New York, Fuller traveled frequently for the school. He also took a two-month leave of absence to visit Africa with a group from the Church of Christ. The burgeoning city of Mbandaka, Zaire, made an impression on him at this time.
In 1968, the Fuller family returned to Koinonia Farm to find it much-changed due to the harassment of neighbors. Only six inhabitants remained. Yet, the Fullers and Jordan resolved to rebuild the community somehow. They decided to start a housing partnership plan which would build small houses on plots of one half-acre each. The homes were to be built on a corner of the 1100 Koinonia parcel, and were to be sold to poor, rural families.
Additionally, their faith dictated they follow the biblical edict in Exodus 22:25: "If you lend money to any of My people who are poor among you, you shall not be like a moneylender to him; you shall not charge him interest." The money would come from Linda Fuller's business, as well as charitable donations, interest-free loans from donors, and later, small mortgage payments from the homeowners themselves.
Fuller and Jordan began building in 1969, but unfortunately, Jordan was unable to see the project through. He passed away that same year. The Fullers and the other residents of Koinonia kept the dream alive, erecting 27 houses by mid-1972. Thirty-two homes were scheduled to be built on another site as well.
With the great success of the Koinonia community, the Fullers remembered the citizens of Mbandaka, Zaire, and decided to turn their attention in that direction. They spent six months preparing for their stay in Zaire, including three months in Paris to brush up on their French, which was the official language in Zaire. Fuller became the Church of Christ's Director of Development for the entire equatorial region of Zaire. First, his team constructed several small cement-block homes. While not luxurious by any means, they were far superior to the crumbling huts the natives had previously inhabited. The Fullers and their church group also raised money for prosthetic limbs and eyeglasses for the people of Mbandaka who desperately needed them.
In 1976, Fuller and his family returned to Koinonia Farm, determined to use their experience for even bigger and better purposes. As Fuller later commented to Barnes of the Chicago Tribune, "We want to make shelter a matter of conscience. We want to make it socially, politically, morally, and religiously unacceptable to have substandard housing and homelessness." They founded Habitat for Humanity International, an organization which was to raise money and recruit volunteers to build homes for those in need. Government help would be enlisted for land acquisition and utilities, but the houses themselves were to be built from the donations of individuals.
Habitat homes are sold to families or individuals living in substandard housing who do not earn enough to buy a home through conventional channels. Some people mistakenly believe that Habitat gives people free homes, but as a Habitat volunteer commented to Christian Science Monitor, "We give away nothing but a great opportunity." A small down-payment is required, as is a low monthly mortgage. The mortgage payments go into a fund that perpetuates the program. Additionally, all buyers invest a set number of labor hours in their own home. Fuller calls this "sweat equity" and points out that it builds a sense of pride and ownership in the individuals.
The organization has grown each year: in 1980, the organization had eleven U.S. affiliate groups and five projects running overseas. Fourteen years later, they boasted 1,108 affiliate groups in the United States, plus 331 college chapters in North America, and over 160 affiliate groups in Hungary, Poland, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Pacific region. In their first 15 years of operation, Habitat for Humanity built 10,000 homes. They built their next 10,000 homes in just two years' time, and a subsequent 10,000 homes in the next year and a half. The organization ranked seventeenth in the home construction business in 1995.
The Fullers and Habitat have also generated support from people of all walks of life and every side of the political fence: former President Jimmy Carter and Rosalyn Carter, President Bill Clinton, leading Republican Newt Gingrich, actor Paul Newman, entertainer Bob Hope, and singer Amy Grant. The Fullers were joined by the Carters for a rebuilding effort of 20 homes in parts of riot-torn Los Angeles in 1995.
Fuller has written a number of books which both set forth his philosophies and detail the histories of his various contributions. Bokotola (1977) was inspired by the Fullers' time in Zaire; The Theology of the Hammer (1994), and A Simple, Decent Place to Live: The Building Realization of Habitat for Humanity (1995) in which he discusses Habitat for Humanity and the theology the inspired and continues to inspire it. In The Theology of the Hammer, Fuller explained, "The idea or concept of the theology of the hammer is that our Christian faith (indeed, our entire Judeo-Christian tradition) mandates that we do more than just talk about faith and sing about love. We must put faith and love into action to make them real, to make them come alive for people…. True faith must be acted out."
Fuller continues to refuse large yearly salaries, yet, his rewards are great. He has received 15 honorary doctorates, the Council of State Housing Agencies Outstanding Achievement Award (1986), the Common Cause Public Service Achievement Award (1989), and the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award, from both the King Center (1987) and the Georgia State Holiday Commission (1992). In late 1996, President Clinton awarded him a Medal of Freedom. Millard and Linda Fuller have jointly won a few awards as well, including the 1994 Harry S. Truman Public Service Award.
In a May 1995 interview with Barnes of the Chicago Tribune, Fuller remarked, "You are looking at a very happy man. Very busy, but Linda and I work together now and I derive much more joy making money for other people than I ever did from making it for myself."
Further Reading on Millard Fuller
Fuller, Millard, The Theology of the Hammer, Myth and Helwys, 1994.
Atlanta Journal, "Habitat Leader Tries to Set an Example in Refusing Large Salary," April 28, 1992, p. A4.
Atlanta Journal/Constitution, "A Firm Foundation," July 28, 1996, section M, p. 1.
Chicago Tribune, "Building New Hope: Couple Find Each Other by Trading Their Millions for Hammer and Nails," May 14, 1995, section 6, p. 3.
Christian Science Monitor, August 7, 1987, p. 21.
Ebony, November 1996, p. 28.
Time, "A Bootstrap Approach to Low-Cost Housing," January 16, 1989, pp. 12-13.
Habitat for Humanity, http://www.habitat.org (December 29, 1997).