A Model for Expanding Goodness

Donald Mitchell Posted by Donald Mitchell.

Donald Mitchell is CEO and chairman of Mitchell and Company, a financial and strategy consulting firm founded in 1977. He has worked on assignments with the most senior officers at hundreds of major companies, including Colgate-Palmolive, McGraw-Hill, Becton Dickinson, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo, Pitney Bowes, Procter & Gamble, and Southwest Airlines.

A Model for Expanding Goodness

United States Navy, Public Domain

In 1968 Millard and Linda Fuller gave away their worldly possessions and began working with Clarence Jordan at Koinonia Farm in Georgia to develop the seed of Habitat for Humanity International, a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian ministry that provides decent housing to help eliminate poverty and improve family life. Donors provide land and capital, volunteers and the families buying the homes help with the building, and the houses are sold at cost with no-interest mortgages to deserving families. Since that time, more than 125,000 homes have been built in over 80 countries.

From 1973 to 1976, the Fullers succeeded in testing the vision in Zaire, where Mr. Fuller established an ongoing organization to achieve this vision. This has allowed others to pursue the vision more easily, learn to proceed, and attract partners.

Drawing on his expertise in marketing, Mr. Fuller soon developed a number of ways to interest others in supporting Habitat, including writing books about the experiences, sponsoring fund-raising and volunteer-attracting walks, speaking at churches, and holding special building day events.

The organization soon split into affiliates to operate in accordance with the Habitat vision and model, each responsible for finding resources, volunteers, and families to purchase and assist in the building. Affiliates were encouraged to donate one-tenth of their funds to support home building in other countries so the program could be expanded into poor countries where the needs were greatest.

Habitat for Humanity International (HHI) encouraged individuals and organizations to establish their own initiatives. Since 1984, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, have sponsored and participated in an annual event to build houses, and their example helps attract ever-growing publicity, volunteers, and donations. HHI also loosened its control over national affiliates, so that these organizations could adapt the vision to better fit their own countries, stimulating changes that led to even faster and more successful growth. And, the organization improved in designing lowercost housing, training inexperienced builders, and organizing the building process.

As Habitat for Humanity International has grown, the quality of the benefits to all stakeholders has improved as well. The sense of satisfaction is greater now for volunteers and donors because they see and hear more signs of success, communities and neighborhoods benefit from having more of these new homes clustered together, families become stronger from having had decent homes for a number of years and enjoying more physical security in neighborhoods with other Habitat families, and children living in the Habitat homes help one another do better in school.

Unexpected benefits resulted. Habitat families banded together to oust neighboring drug dealers. Volunteers developed new skills and self-confidence, sometimes even leading to new careers. Donor churches became stronger spiritually. New friends were met. Marriages among Habitat volunteers are not unusual.

A unique element of the Habitat innovation experience is that sheer enthusiasm for the organization’s purpose, its “why,” helped drive many of the innovations. This enthusiasm is built upon the joys of being a servant leader.


  • Seek to live the ideals you believe in by making their accomplishment your daily focus and show others how living their ideals will improve their lives.
  • Find ways to help people help themselves to meet their most urgent needs.
  • Constantly improve the ways you use to help people help themselves by providing lots of autonomy and the inspiration to look for better solutions.

Excerpted from The Ultimate Competitive Advantage.

Don Mitchell and Carol Coles are co-authors of the The Ultimate Competitive Advantage (Berrett-Koehler, 2003). They are also co-authors of The Irresistible Growth Enterprise (Stylus, 2000) and The 2,000 Percent Solution (AMACOM, 1999) .