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Habitat for Humanity on the profile of a good 21st century NGO

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Elizabeth Blake, former SVP of Habitat for Humanity, speaks at Stanford
Photo credit: 
Dana Phelps

Elizabeth Blake, Habitat for Humanity International’s General Counsel and team leader of its Government Relations and Advocacy operations, spoke to students at the Freeman Spogli Institute on February 25 as part of the Program on Human Rights Winter Speaker Series that examined U.S Human Rights NGO’s and International Human Rights. 

Habitat for Humanity is a Christian not-for-profit organization that started in 1974 with the credo that every person has a human right to secure shelter and tenure of land. Most of its work is overseas, where Habitat for Humanity has built homes for over 3 million people in over 70 countries. Using security of tenure as its cornerstone, it especially assists women and children who are the most vulnerable to homelessness and insecure tenure. Habitat for Humanity has also recently expanded into housing microfinance, water and sanitation, risk reduction and response, and in creating Habitat Resource Centers.    

Blake’s provocative starting salvo was that “NGOs often do harm and frequently waste money.” Instead, they need to work better among themselves and invite partnerships with other NGOs, governments, and multi-lateral partners. This is not simply a moral imperative but also a practical necessity given the size of the U.S. not-for-profit sector, which as an employer of 13 million people is a significant part of the national economy.   

Habitat for Humanity’s approach maximizes its impact abroad through four principles:

1.     Community development starts with its people – people are the true assets;

2.     International community development must be based upon priorities set by the local community itself;

3.     The test of success of any community development is that local capacity is improved; and

4.     “Accompaniment” – a term first coined by Paul Farmer of Partners in Health: Habitat for Humanity works with and works for the people of that community.

This last principle is the most important: Habitat for Humanity has 1 million volunteers each year who work together with communities, or as Blake says, “scraping walls together with people from a local community is a different relationship to handing out soup” and ensures “going from aid to empowerment.”

Responding to questions from Dana Phelps, program associate for the Program on Human Rights and moderator of the event, Blake emphasized the relevance of her corporate background to working in the non-profit world.  As a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Law, she brings her extensive corporate experience to her work at Habitat, and stressed that “non-profits are businesses – a major corporate undertaking” for which her business background had trained her “not to take no for an answer.” 

Blake also explained that while Habitat for Humanity is a multi-denominational Christian organization, it is not registered as a church.  This means it is subject to anti-discrimination laws in its hiring practices and daily operations. It does not engage in prosthletyzing but instead sees itself as a morals-based organization.   

When Blake was further pressed on how “accompaniment” works in practice, she emphasized that Habitat for Humanity does not impose its values and morals on communities, but instead has intentionally slow processes that ensure communities adapt new practices in their own time. For example, when questioned on the impact of gender-equality housing improvements, Blake said, “Habitat for Humanity doesn’t make the first running – it tends to go in to communities that are already taking the running on gender equality.” 

Helen Stacy, Director of the Program on Human Rights