Habitat for Humanity volunteers. Photo: Natalie Maynor

Since its start in the mid-1960’s, Habitat for Humanity has built over 350,000 houses to date, and housed over 1.75 million people. The organization has a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Ashton Kutcher spent a week building in Central America. Brad Pitt laid down some bricks in India. William Shatner sold a kidney stone to finance a house. It seems as close to an intrinsic good as you’re going to find in the NGO world.

Speaking badly of Habitat would not only be difficult and improper – it would represent something approaching depravity, wouldn’t it?

I’ve got a long summer break this year, so I decided I might join up with the organization’s Global Village program in Cambodia. A quick bit of online research led me to the names and contact details of the three projects taking place.

I followed up with the leader in Siem Reap. Hugh M., a semi-retired chemistry professor in Tacoma, Washington, would make the project his seventh build. He agreed to do a phone interview with me the same day I contacted him. He asked reasonable questions about my motives for doing the program and my personal history, how I’d feel living with other team members, and if I had any special dietary restrictions.

Photo: tukanuk

The literature he’d sent made the experience look exactly like the one I wanted to have, so I didn’t ask much, except to find out about our lodging (“It’s nicer than anything I’ve ever stayed in in America,” was his response) and how much prayer would be involved. “I don’t have a daily reflection, or do a reading,” he promised me. “Some people come for that, so I tell them right up front, that’s not the kind of groups I run.” This seemed to me to be the best of all possible answers.

One thing I was curious about, though, was the cost of the trip. The Cambodia builds, all two-week affairs, cost $1,750. I asked Hugh where this money went. “Well, $400 goes to the Habitat fund in the country; it’s a donation. And the rest covers hotels, and transportation, and food, insurance, and that sort of thing.”

So the build required in excess of $1,300 a head. In a country where the average per capita income is around $2,000, and a most people don’t earn a fraction of that, that’s a lot of cash. I said as much to him, politely, and he responded with a verbal head scratch. “You know, I have tried to ask them where this money goes, or to cut down on the fees a bit, but that’s just the way it is.” I left it at that, and we chatted on a while longer about the adventure ahead.

“You know, I have tried to ask them where this money goes, or to cut down on the fees a bit, but that’s just the way it is.”

Before hanging up, he told me what I wanted to hear: “If you’re interested, you are welcome to be on my team.” Hired. I thanked him and told him I’d reach a final decision within a few days.

The unaccounted $1,300 still bothered me, though. As much as I wanted to do the project, the math just didn’t make sense.

Considering Cambodian prices, and being very generous, I broke it down as such (Habitat’s breakdown is here):

Donation to Cambodia HFH: $400 per person
Shared accomodation – $50 per room, per night – $25pp x 13 nights = $325 per person
Meals – breakfasts and lunches for 10 days, not counting weekends $8 x 10 work days = $80 per person
Health insurance – $100 per person
Transportation – a mini-van for 16 x 10 work days – $50 per day, $500/16 people = $35 per person, approximately

TOTAL: $940 per person

Photo: charleschan

Granted, these are just the ‘necessities’. There are other things covered by the fees, including participation in ‘local ceremonies and events’. But we are still short.

I placed a call to Habitat’s headquarters in Americus, Georgia to inquire further. The receptionist put me through to David, the worker in charge of SE Asia.

David spoke with a fairly pronounced Indian accent. He told me that, in fact, $500 of the money went to donations – $400 to the local branch, and $100 to the American office. Fair enough. “But what about the rest?” I asked. He then reiterated the exact information that the build website contained – in fact, it’s entirely possible he was reading from the site as he spoke to me.

“Yes, I saw all of that online,” I assured him, “But I’ve been to Cambodia before, and we’re still talking about $1,250 for two weeks.”

“Well, as I said, $500 is a donation,” he repeated, and at this point I noticed a slight change in the tone of his voice.

“I am very interested in the program,” I told him, “I’ve already interviewed with the Team Leader and he told me I was welcome to join. I just want to know, since this is an investment, where it’s going.”

He solicited Hugh’s name and the trip dates. I realized I was no longer an anonymous caller.

“So we share a double occupancy hotel room, correct?” I continued. “Even $50 a night would get you a great double room in Cambodia.”

“I just want to know, since this is an investment, where it’s going.”

“Yes, but when you are travelling in a group the expenses are higher,” he claimed, citing some little-known Inverse Law of Group Travelling Costs.

I didn’t press that issue. “And transport, in Cambodia, it’s very cheap – I mean, a bus for one day can’t be that expensive for a group.”

Silence.

“Yes, well, if you have any other questions about the program,” he said, “I’d be happy to answer them.” It was clear he had no desire to remain on the phone.

“But you haven’t answered the questions I’ve asked, so I’d really like to talk about them first.”

“Yes, well, I hope this has been helpful, and feel free to call us again.” He now appeared to be reading from a customer service script, choosing lines in no particular order.

“But why would I do that when you haven’t answered the questions I’m asking you?” I laughed.

“Yes, well, thank you, and have a nice day.” And with that, the phone call ended.

What the hell had just happened?

Now, the kicker. My phone call to Americus took place at 10:00 PM Seoul time, which would have been 9:00 AM there, and 6:00 AM in Tacoma. Scarcely 20 minutes after I got off the phone, I received the following message from Hugh:

From: Hugh M###### ########@comcast.net
to: Bryan Fox

Date: Wed, Mar 31, 2010 at 10:16 AM

Subject: Re: Siem Reap Team

Bryan,

Thanks for the interview and your quick response to my emails.

After reviewing the list of applicants I think in all fairness that I should place you on the wait list for my team.

Hugh

Photo: Aresaurburn

So this is what Global Village project volunteers need to say – I am willing to take my vacation time and finance my own way to a foreign country. I am willing to pay for my own meals, lodging, health insurance, and transport to the work site. And I am willing to work, unpaid, for two weeks on a project. And I agree unquestioningly to let you charge unaccountable dollars for the privilege of doing so?

I took a look at HFHI’s 990 (a tax exempt organization’s IRS form) from 2009. The organization employs only 1,252 staff and in the previous tax year, it had almost $255 million in revenue, nearly 90% from contributions and grants. It declared slightly over $266 million in operating expenses, including $47 million in salaries and wages. So whatever it charges to its 750,000 volunteers, the organization is still running at a loss.

Transparency, anyone?

This article is not meant as an exposé of the ‘seedy underbelly’ of Habitat. But all Global Village projects charge at least $1,300 for 10-14 day stints in countries where that is a lot of money.

So isn’t it fair to ask: Where is the money from the Global Village program going?

I wrote Hugh a very cordial reply, saying I imagined they’d called him from the head office and told them to strike me from the records. I wished him a successful and enjoyable trip. I didn’t get a response.

So if anyone in Phnom Penh is reading this, and needs some help building a house in July, get in touch. I’m willing to work cheap – and by that I mean, if you charge me less than $800 a week, I’m in. I figure I’ll be coming out ahead.

Community Connection:

Habitat for Humanity isn’t the only organization that charges people money to volunteer. If you just don’t have the cash or are worried about organizations’ use of money, check out Matt Scott’s 10 Volunteer Opportunities for Free Travel.