Questions Follow Fuller's Firing from Habitat for Humanity
Habitat for Humanity International announced January 31 that it had fired founder and president Millard Fuller and his wife, Linda.
In a statement, HFH said, "The termination decisions culminate several months of differences between the Fullers and the board over an allegation of inappropriate personal behavior of Millard Fuller toward a now-former female employee, and the Fullers' behavior as the investigation into that complaint unfolded." HFH said there was insufficient evidence to corroborate the complaint, but said Fuller engaged in a "pattern of ongoing public comments and communications that have been divisive and disruptive to the organization's work."
What is certain is that the events that led to the firing reveal the changing culture of the highly successful housing ministry, and the inability of its charismatic founder to thrive in the environment he helped create.
The Fullers' high-profile departure brings to an end a 29-year effort that started just as dramatically when Millard and Linda stepped away from successful business ventures that had made them millions, sold everything, and with the money began Habitat for Humanity. The organization has become the world's largest nonprofit housing organization, and has provided safe, decent, and affordable shelter to 750,000 people in more than 3,000 communities.
Replay of anguish
For Millard Fuller, 70, the current battle with the board is reminiscent of the anguish of the early 1990s, when he was accused by five women of untoward familiarity and was exiled from the Americus headquarters in south Georgia to Atlanta for a year. According to a former Habitat executive, the conflict and recriminations of 1990-1991 left the organization shaken and nearly ended the involvement of Habitat's key patron, former President and fellow south Georgian Jimmy Carter.
"I don't know if any of the allegations, then or now, are true. They were never proven. But Millard certainly made some bad judgments," this former executive said. "It's hard to believe he'd get in a car alone with a female member of the staff, even after so many years. He put himself in a situation in which he has a hard time defending himself."
Carter was one who concluded there was no basis for the 2004 allegation. He wrote to board chairman Rey Ramsey on May 1, 2004: "I have considered carefully the information you gave me in our telephone conversation and that was provided by the directors to Millard and his attorney, and it is obvious that there is no proof of impropriety, much less of actual sexual abuse. It is a case of conflicting reports, the earliest notice of which was made by the accuser more than a year after the alleged incident."
The current CEO and the Fullers have signaled that the relationship between Millard Fuller and the board was wearing thin for many reasons.
Chief executive officer Paul Leonard fueled speculation when he told the Associated Press: "You have to have the enthusiasm Millard brings. But right alongside of it you have to be organizing and putting in place the people that you need to carry things forward."
A senior Habitat official said on the condition of anonymity that it was not the harassment charges but a need to find more skilled management for the booming organization that prompted the board's final decision. The official said Habitat faced what many organizations have in the past when the demands of what had become a large enterprise outstripped the abilities of its visionary founder.
Millard Fuller told Christianity Today he fears that the board used the controversy to ease him out in order to find a "high-paid bean counter" instead of someone with "strong Christian commitment," and that Habitat will become "just another nonprofit doing good work across the country and around the world."