Features

Preserving Habitat

Charity | Millard Fuller forced to leave the house he built

Issue: "UN: Kofi's crisis," Dec. 18, 2004

On the Richter scale of organizational shakeups, the one at Habitat for Humanity rates at least a 7.0, maybe higher. But strangely, the shift of Habitat founder Millard Fuller from CEO into a largely ornamental position on the group's letterhead is registering as a mere tremor.

Mr. Fuller, 69, founded Habitat 28 years ago on a farm near Americus, Ga. He had a straightforward goal: "To eliminate poverty housing and homelessness from the face of the Earth." From that vision emerged an international Christian ministry renowned for building "simple, decent" homes in partnership with the poor. Since 1976, Habitat has built more than 120,000 homes for more than 600,000 people in slums, jungles, war zones, and rundown suburbs on six of the seven continents.

But in October, with a low-key press release, Habitat's board replaced Mr. Fuller with Paul Leonard, a Presbyterian minister and former building company executive. Mr. Fuller's wife Linda told the Associated Press that the board had actually come close to firing Mr. Fuller altogether.

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The problem: allegations of "inappropriate conduct" with a female staff member. Last year, Mr. Fuller caught a ride to the Atlanta airport with Victoria Cross, 35, a 15-year Habitat employee. Thirteen months later, while Mr. Fuller and his wife Linda were traveling in Hong Kong, Habitat board chairman Rey Ramsey called Mr. Fuller to tell him that Mrs. Cross, the wife of a minister, had accused him of touching her inappropriately during that airport commute.

It was not the first time Mr. Fuller had faced accusations of inappropriate behavior. In 1990, several female Habitat staffers charged him with sexual harassment, saying he had kissed them on the cheek, paid a compliment, or delivered a hug. Mr. Fuller told the Associated Press that, yes, he did those things, but that they were misinterpreted: He was just a friendly good ol' boy, he said, brought up in a Southern culture where that kind of thing was the norm. But Mr. Fuller flatly denied Mrs. Cross's accusations, and she has since left the organization.

Mr. Fuller did not return several WORLD phone calls requesting comment, nor did Mrs. Cross answer phone calls to her home in Texas. Habitat Special Vice President for communications Chris Clark told WORLD that the group had already been working on a plan to succeed Mr. Fuller as the founder approached his 70th birthday. There had been some disagreement over the direction the organization would take, as there often is when a group moves from the leadership of a visionary founder.

When the issue with Mrs. Cross arose, "it made a bumpy road more difficult," Mr. Clark said. Habitat hired a law firm to investigate Mrs. Cross's allegations. The firm found "insufficient evidence" of misconduct. Still, after a lengthy meeting with Mr. Ramsey in October, Mr. Fuller agreed to step aside.

Mr. Fuller's purported moral failings might have been enough to sink other Christian ministries. But the imprimatur of former President Jimmy Carter (Habitat's most famous volunteer and a vocal Fuller supporter), the group's independently operated affiliates, and the fact that many people aren't aware of Habitat's gospel roots may well turn Mr. Fuller's troubles into a minor bump in the road.

"This is an organization that started out blatantly Christian and has in some ways abandoned that over time," said Rusty Leonard, head of Wall Watchers, a charity watchdog group. Add to that the independent nature of the group's international chapters and its low-key handling of Mr. Fuller's move from founding visionary to figurehead.

"Major donors may hear about this, but the average donor is going to have to dig deep in the newspapers to ever learn about it. As long as Millard's name is still on the masthead, everything is going to look fine to them. . . . There may be some disruption among major donors. But probably not a huge reaction," said Mr. Leonard, who is not related to new Habitat CEO Paul Leonard.

Rusty Leonard noted that Mr. Fuller himself has long expressed public concern over what he calls a "daily pressure to secularize," including press coverage that has routinely filtered out the group's biblical message. Ironically, that may now save a ministry founded on Christian principles from any lasting damage from perceived misconduct on the part of its Christian founder.

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