Early yesterday, Millard Fuller, the co-founder of Habitat for Humanity, died suddenly. The ministry he and his wife Linda founded in 1976 out of a small gray house in Americus, Georgia has provided poverty housing for 1.5 million people.

The papers, networks and fundraising trade press will herald the fact that, a millionaire by 30, Millard gave up his fortune in favor of the unfortunate. His zeal and infectious optimism attracted millions of volunteers who gave up their weekends and vacations to practice what Millard called the “Theology of the Hammer.” Among the world leaders and Hollywood celebrities who took up hammers and saws, President Jimmy Carter was the leading volunteer.

I’ll leave it to others to cite the awards, the honors, the accomplishments and the unrelenting enthusiasm Millard showed for accomplishing what most would consider impossible.

For nearly 20 years a group of us at Craver, Mathews, Smith served as his fundraising consultants and as volunteer builders and collectors of Millard lore. The reality of complex data-driven projections drove him nuts and his eyes would glaze over as this or that set of numbers was reviewed. His most frequent response: “Yeah, I get it, but you guys have to realize the poor need money now!” And so everyone worked harder and Habitat’s accomplishments grew beyond mere “projections.”

As in Greek mythology there is a tragic aspect to all this success. Attempts by Habitat’s board to oust him for alleged improper behavior were made twice and failed. They never succeeded in part because of President Carter’s firm guidance and loyalty, and in part, because of Millard’s tenacity to not give in or give up.

He left Habitat in 2005 to start the Fuller Center for Housing, dedicated to funding the work of Habitat affiliates.

I’m writing this from Amsterdam at 11:00 p.m. Tuesday evening, and Morris Dees, my friend of 35 years and the Founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center just called me on the road from Montgomery, Alabama to Americus. He was Millard’s classmate in law school and his partner in the wildly successful direct marketing firm of Fuller and Dees. An odd couple if ever there was one, they made a fortune together and both went on to do good works.

Morris and I reminisced about the time Millard went to Morris to borrow $250,000 for Habitat’s direct mail program and Morris willingly gave it – provided Craver, Mathews, Smith did the work. And about how they both watched and emulated the fundraising techniques of the other’s organization, competitive to the end.

But there was Morris, having heard the news of Millard’s death, winding his way through Georgia on his way to the funeral. Always there for his friend and partner no matter how many disagreements they had, and they had plenty.

As he passed through Jimmy Carter’s Plains, Georgia, a few miles from Americus, the one-time Headquarters of Habitat before it went upscale and moved most operations to Atlanta, Morris asked me, “Roger, whose legacy was most tarnished by all the efforts to drive him out … Millard’s or Habitat’s?”

That’s easy to answer. The board of Habitat tarnished Millard, but in doing so it destroyed the legacy of Habitat.

Roger

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