Millard Fuller: Businessman and philanthropist who founded Habitat for Humanity International

Millard Fuller's life was a parable for our times – the story of a devout and visionary Christian whoin his early 30s turned his back ona hugely lucrative business career and became a global pioneer of affordable housing for the poor, in what is surely one of the most remarkable andinnovative philanthropic ventures in US history.

Today, Habitat for Humanity International, the organisation he founded with his wife in 1976, has builtsome 300,000 homes worldwide. For his work, Fuller was honoured bytwo American presidents, while a third former American president is among his most dedicated volunteers and admirers.

In his early years, there was little to hint at the transformation to come. Raised in modest circumstances in the Deep South, Fuller graduated from Auburn University in eastern Alabama, before enrolling at law school at the University of Alabama. The day he left in 1960, he and a fellow law student named Morris Dees set up a direct marketing company, with one unabashed aim: to get rich quick. The business did well, and the publishing venture that followed fared even better. By the time he was 29, Fuller was a millionaire.

But as his businesses flourished, his marriage foundered. A different couple might have separated. Instead, Fuller and his wife, Linda, whom he had married in 1959, re-examined their lives and decided to start anew as true Christians, turning their backs on wealth and its trappings and devoting themselves to helping others. At about the same time Dees had his own epiphany, selling the publishing company and setting up the Southern Poverty Law Center, now an internationally known civil rights and anti-race-hate group, based in Montgomery, Alabama.

Fuller's path was different. After selling the bulk of their possessions and giving the proceeds to charity, he and Linda moved to Koinonia Farm, a multi-racial Christian commune near Americus in rural western Georgia, which had fallen on hard times. There Fuller conceived his idea of non-profit housing, born of his entrepreneurial conviction that what the poor really needed was not charity, but capital.

Working closely with Clarence Jordan, a bible scholar and leader of the Koinonia community, the Fullers developed their model: a "Fund for Humanity" that would take in donations to buy construction materials. Volunteer workers – including the families who would eventually live in and own the houses – would build simple, solid houses. Once they had moved in, the homeowners would then repay the cost of the materials to the fund, without interest. This money would in turn be used to finance new houses and new projects.

In 1973, Fuller went to Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of theCongo, as director of development for the Church of Christ. There, he started a similar project that built 114 houses at the town of Mbandaka on the Congo River.

Three years later he returned to Koinonia, and founded Habitat for Humanity International. The formula quickly became a success. Many celebrities and other prominent people added to its renown by serving as volunteers – none with more impact than Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, who have put in a stint every year since 1984.

Fuller, the former president said in a statement, had been "one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known." What made him so extraordinary – and so effective – was not merely Fuller's deep Christianity, but the business and legal skills and sheer verve he brought to his mission. By 2003, Habitat and its affiliates had built over 150,000 homes and were active in 92 countries. By the end of Fuller's life that figure had almost doubled, meaning decent homes for more than a million people in the US and around the world.

For his work, he was honoured by both President George H.W. Bush and Bush's successor, Bill Clinton, who awarded Fuller the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honour, saying that he had "revolutionised the concept of philanthropy."

Thereafter, not even a rancorous split with Habitat for Humanity in 2005 could seriously damage hisreputation. The proximate reasons were allegations that he had sexually harassed at least one female employee. Fuller denied the charges, and they were never substantiated. He was none the less dismissed by Habitat's board, whose real complaint, Fuller believed, was that he was expanding the organisation too fast. "I havefaced this problem from the beginning," he said at the time, "of people always hanging on my coat-tails trying to hold me back."

Undeterred, that same year he founded a new organisation in Americus, the Fuller Center for Housing, which operated along the same lines as Habitat for Humanity. The Center is now active in 24 US states and 14 foreign countries.

If anything, the current economic crisis has provided extra validation for Fuller's creed. "As a society, we have confused wants and needs, and a lot of people have raised up their wants way above their needs, and way above their ability to support all those wants," he declared in a recent speech in Arkansas. "We've got to get back to the basics, and explain to people that you will not wither up and die if you don't have that widescreen TV."

Rupert Cornwell

Millard Dean Fuller, philanthropist and humanitarian: born Lanett, Alabama 3 January 1935; married 1959 LindaCaldwell (one son, three daughters); founder and president of Habitat for Humanity, 1976-2005; founder, The Fuller Center for Housing; died Americus, Georgia 2 February 2009.

News
people

Arts and Entertainment
JJ Abrams' seventh Star Wars, The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of Episode VII has gone online after weeks of anticipation
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
art

Presents unwrapped, turkey gobbled... it's time to relax

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager -Healthcare Software-£70,000 OTE

£40000 - £60000 per annum + £60,000 OTE+Car+Mobile: h2 Recruit Ltd: Business D...

Cancer Research UK: Volunteer Area Manager Mentor/Coach

Voluntary : Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for volunteers who will use thei...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: National Commercial Manager - Buyer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This waste services provider is...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game