Habitat for Humanity: The Pros and Cons of Philanthropy

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By Matt Joyce
Commentary Editor

Mornings at Habitat for Humanity looks like a 4:00 AM fire drill at a college dormitory. Dazed and weary, begrudged students shuffle about, moving along with forced motivation. Encouraging site supervisors struggle to keep them conscious as they detail the day’s assignments. Habitat employees are charged with the task of making the most mundane activity sound exhilarating. This is the first qualification the organization looks for in a new employee Ð with construction experience often placing a distant second.

Volunteers listen to the list of jobs, waiting to hear something sexy like wiring the electrical system, or jack hammering through a cement foundation. Most will eventually settle for shoveling a pile of crushed chimney brick and asbestos into a lopsided wheelbarrow.

When the jobs are all dished out, and the volunteers have been sufficiently divided down gender lines, the group members embark on their tasks.

Habitat is not the most efficient homebuilder in the country. The majority of their workers are inexperienced and lack a vested interest in productivity. Even the leadership is often composed of quickly trained novices without construction experience. This is all to be expected and factored in, but nonetheless promotes a less motivated atmosphere than one might find in a world of deadlines and supervision.

Yet the organization is clearly doing something right. Houses are constructed by the hundreds each year in the U.S. alone. On top of this, as one Americorps volunteer explained, “Our houses are the most durable you’ll find on any block in America Ð we may work with a fraction of the construction experience, but I bet we hammer about ten times as many nails in each board.”

Volunteers work hard until lunchtime at which point they fill up on college-issued turkey and cheese, and begin to remember what sitting down feels like. Reflecting on their strenuous morning, many have already tipped their altruistic balance, and begin to wonder what they are still doing slapping mortar in the projects of West Philadelphia.

This combination spells disaster for the second half of the day. The carpenters’ encouragement that had stimulated effort all through the morning starts to have a reverse effect in the PM hours. Student volunteers, pleased with the apparent success of their day’s work, begin to check their watches like they’re counting down a time bomb. Little gets accomplished in the afternoon. This is all typical of the Habitat experience.

Such organized, large-scale benevolence is a fairly modern phenomenon in the western world, and is all but non-existent elsewhere. Volunteerism was traditionally give and take. It was not advertised by charitable foundations. It was not a fashionable addition to a humanitarian resume. It was a willful donation of time, offered with the expectation that the favor would one day be returned. Most of all, it was community service within an actual community; helping your neighbors rather than invisible beneficiaries.

Many Habitat volunteers will drive nearly an hour to the sites. They export their labor to intangible strangers whom they will likely never meet and will certainly never expect to return the favor. Habitat and similar organization do a number of wonderful things for families throughout America and their positive effects speak for themselves. But as houses are erected, so too are barriers separating ‘selfless’ volunteers from ‘needy’ recipients.

Each day volunteers walk away from the habitat site with a warm feeling in their heart. It is a feeling often rooted in the false contentment that they’ve provided for a family who could not provide for themselves. As Americans, we seem to love philanthropy as much as we hate beggars, and the only difference lies in that deceptive self-assurance that we’ve done what’s best for the impoverished community. In this sense, charity becomes a kind of domestic colonialism in which the privileged classes contribute their time and money so that they may bask in the assumption that the anonymous “poor” are becoming a little more civilized.

Of course I’ve of touched on the worst attributes of community service, and only skimmed by its benefits. The issue is not volunteer work, rather that America has incarcerated charity within an ironclad definition Ð a socialized classification that states, “The privileged shall help those who cannot help themselves.”

Volunteerism can be an adhesive force cementing community bonds, or it can be a barricade maintaining separation. By emphasizing the community in the community service, and forging real relationships between the givers and the receivers we can establish positive attitudes on charity. But when we stress the service aspect, we create a model of volunteerism that operates on notions of obligation for the privileged and dependency for the impoverished, and a society where benevolence begins to segregate.

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