Changing Habitat

ACORN Ideas and Issues Personal Writings

New Orleans        One of the “laws” of organizing I have often repeated to new organizers, frequently to blank stares, is that in organizing, “the beginnings prejudice the ends.”  In English that is supposed to mean that the organizational structure and form often predetermine function.  In simpler terms it is very, very hard to ever change an organization over time, unless the structure was deliberately built in a flexible and adaptable fashion, which is very rare.

    I was reminded of all of this recently when reading an article in the Times by Stephanie Strom about the change pains being felt by Habitat for Humanity International and its relationship with some of its affiliates, as well as a competitor started by its deposed founder and his new organization, that gives some of the affiliates a viable “threat of exit” and a place to go to re-live the “old days.”  Much of this seems occasioned by moves to centralize the organization and create a set of formal standards and quality control for Habitat construction and operation.   

    There is a new CEO of course.  There always is.  This is not really the problem.

    The problem is that the 1600 affiliates are all stand-alone corporations sharing a brand name and coming together as a federation of local “Habitats” to create the one big Habitat International.  So the buckling is predictable, and change is going to be hard and contentious, and the reality of exits every present in any conflict whether trivial or principled.  The article was about “more than a dozen affiliates, including San Antonio, in as many states…” who are complaining about the new agreement.  Out of 1600 one would normally say “ho-hum,” but you have to both advance and protect a brand, and even a whisper of trouble affects the brand, as all big corporations have now taught us.  

    Habitat needs standards for quality control.  How can there really be an argument there?  Poor people shouldn’t have their houses, as well as their dreams, collapse around them. The other issue seems to be that when big Habitat collects the money for the affiliates it now wants to take 10.4% of any gift intended for an affiliate to cover “processing costs.”  Well, it is hard to see that as highway robbery either.  Of course Millard Fuller, the deposed founder, used to look the other way on that (just as ACORN national doesn’t collect its piece of local dues mandated by the Board and Bylaws) so this gives them an issue they can also moan about.  

    This is what institutional change looks like.  Habitat International is trying to move to the next step in institutional development.  Many of us have been there, done that, are still doing it, and there is always a price to pay for the changes.  They don’t have a choice.  They are too big not to realign their operations and mission with the larger profile they have now.  They started out as locally based and religiously motivated, and now they are having to reconcile those virtues and values with the mission of delivering good, affordable housing to the poor and maintaining the profile and capacity to do so.  

    There will be some rough edges dragging, but they have to get down the road or get out of the way.