Jonathan Reckford: CEO of Habitat for Humanity


My NativeAdVice:


Jonathan T.M. Reckford brings to his role as chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity International a passion for serving those in need and the business skills required to lead an effective international nonprofit organization. 

 How did you get into the non-profit industry?

I was raised in a family with a huge passion for social justice and human rights. My grandmother, Millicent Fenwick, drilled into me the need to be “useful” to the world. I had planned on going to law school and then politics but realized I wasn’t really drawn to the law. I began working on Wall Street, but it wasn’t a good fit either.  I sought to regain some perspective and received the Henry Luce Scholarship, which enabled me to spend a year doing marketing work for the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee and coaching the Korean rowing team in preparation for the 1988 Olympics.

In Korea, I began meeting weekly with pastor and ethics professor Jim Peterson who helped me integrate both heart and head around my faith. That exploration led to making an adult commitment to follow Jesus Christ, and nothing has been the same since.

Deeply interested in business strategy and how organizations grow, I returned to the U.S. to work on my MBA degree. One professor’s words made a lasting impression: “The same skills that will make you a success in the for-profit world also are desperately needed in the not-for-profit world.”

I worked for several major companies, including Marriott and the Walt Disney Company. My avocation became coaching pastors of growing churches to help them with leadership challenges. When the last company I worked for was acquired, I left and went on a mission trip to India. Working there with the Dalits, also known as the “untouchables” and “outcastes,” I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life helping the world’s poor. I just had no idea that would lead me to Habitat.

Tell us about Habitat for Humanity.

Habitat for Humanity International's vision is a world where everyone has a decent place to live. Our mission is to put God’s love into action by bringing people together to build homes, communities and hope.

Anchored by the conviction that housing provides a critical foundation for building a pathway out of poverty, Habitat has helped more than 4 million people worldwide construct, rehabilitate or preserve homes since 1976. Habitat also advocates to improve access to decent and affordable shelter and supports a variety of funding models that enable families with limited resources to make needed improvements on their homes as their time and resources allow. As a nonprofit Christian housing organization, Habitat works in more than 70 countries and welcomes people of all races, religions and nationalities to partner in its mission.

 What differentiates your non-profit from the rest of the industry? 

1. Our “hand up versus handout” model where families earn “sweat equity” by helping build their homes and their neighbors’ homes and then pay back a no-profit mortgage that recycles in the community to help another family;

2. The fact that volunteers help construct the homes, which is more of a social transformation strategy than a construction strategy, as the volunteers are impacted by the experience;

3. That we have been a pioneer in housing microfinance, encouraging the microfinance industry to begin making loans for home improvement; and

4. That our chain of more than 800 Habitat for Humanity ReStores, our U.S. based nonprofit home improvement stores and donation centers, generates over $300 million in revenue by selling used home and building products while keeping hundreds of thousands of tons of material out of landfills.

Under your leadership Habitat for Humanity has grown drastically, what marketing strategies/partnerships helped you accomplish this? 

One critical growth engine has been the ability to find the opportunity to help when things go terribly wrong. I joined Habitat in 2005, soon after the terrible Indian Ocean tsunami and just as Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Those were two of the worst housing disasters in the past century. We partnered with individuals, corporations and governments and built 25,000 houses with tsunami victims. In ramping up our efforts, we built the capacity to work on a much larger scale, and Asia has become our most active region as a result. In a similar way, we built over 2,500 homes after Katrina and learned a great deal about working in new ways and on a larger scale in the U.S. The magnitude of our responses to those disasters also brought attention and new partners and funding to our mission. We also shifted our mix from primarily new homes to a mix of new, rehabbed and incrementally improved homes. This allowed us to reach families too poor to afford even a very modest home and to help elderly and other vulnerable families be able to remain in their homes.

To do something as complicated as housing and community revitalization, we know that it requires the public, private and nonprofit sectors to work together. We said that in order to grow, we would have to be a partner and catalyst for worldwide access to safe, decent and affordable housing. That has meant a deep commitment to partnership, beginning with the members of the communities with whom we work and bringing together the required organizations, skills and resources.

What makes a great philanthropist?

The willingness to make sacrificial, long-term investments in areas of great need. My favorite definition of calling is from theologian Frederick Buechner: “Where the deep gladness of your heart meets the world’s great need.” A great philanthropist uses wealth in a selfless way, finding joy in investing in leaders and causes with the vision to address that identified need.

What is your proudest moment as CEO of Habitat for Humanity?

Each time I see children who have lived their whole lives in unimaginably difficult conditions gain the stability, safety, hope and opportunity afforded by having a safe, decent and affordable place to live. It fills my heart to see them move from just trying to survive each day to being able to dream about a future.

How do you give back personally?

I make sure I personally volunteer and build with families to stay connected to our work. I also volunteer with my church and serve on the boards of InterAction, the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Duke Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship.

Favorite travel destination?

I love to explore new places. My two favorite recent travel memories are taking my son, Alexander, to Jordan to build with a group of his high school classmates and to visit Petra and the ancient biblical sites and taking my daughter Lily to Cambodia, both to build and visit Angkor Wat.

Role model - business and personal?

My business role model is Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of BRAC in Bangladesh. He built a social business enterprise that has created enormous economic value for extremely low-income families, allowing them to lift themselves out of poverty. He combines extraordinary leadership acumen with remarkable selflessness and compassion. My personal role model is my godmother, Jill Ker Conway. She managed to overcome personal tragedy and discrimination to become the first woman president of Smith College and the lead director of several Fortune 100 companies. What I most admire is her ability to be totally present with people and her remarkable values-driven clarity of purpose.

Most interesting headline you've read this week?

Ebola: Did the world wait too long to respond?

What literature is on your bed stand?

Too much! Currently my stack includes “The Cotton Patch Gospel,” a “southern” translation of the New Testament by Clarence Jordan (known as the spiritual father of Habitat); “An Impossible Invention: The True Story of the Energy Source that Could Change the World” by Mats Lewan; “The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business” by Pat Lencioni; “The Art of Action” by Stephen Bungay, and “The Lemon Tree – An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East” by Sandy Tolan.

What's next for Habitat for Humanity and Jonathan Reckford?

We’re one year into an ambitious growth plan. We want to directly build more than ever but also impact housing markets around the world to create and finance more affordable housing, impact policies to increase access to decent affordable housing, and put the issue on people’s minds in such a way that poverty housing becomes socially, politically and religiously unacceptable in our nations and in our world. I couldn’t be more excited or grateful to be a part of this mission and hope to do this for a very long time.