Everyone needs and deserves a home. It’s our place to be safe, healthy, and loved. In this episode, we’ll learn from Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International and author of the book, Our Better Angels. Jonathan will teach us about the critical failures that are keeping people from having a safe and decent place to live, as well as the solutions that work.
We'll also learn about Jonathan's winding career path to CEO of Habitat, one that took him through investment banking, real estate, retail leadership, church management, and even a stint as the head coach of the Olympic men's rowing team for South Korea. Jonathan will share how he eventually found his professional home at Habitat.
About Our Guest
Jonathan T.M. Reckford is chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity International, a global Christian housing organization that has helped more than 39 million people construct, rehabilitate, or preserve their homes. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and Stanford University, Jonathan has been leading Habitat since 2005 and was named the most influential nonprofit leader in America in 2017 by The NonProfit Times. He is the author of Our Better Angels: Seven Simple Virtues That Will Change Your Life and the World. Jonathan and his wife, Ashley, have three children and live in Atlanta.
Jonathan’s book, Our Better Angels
Habitat for Humanity’s programs and services
A short biography of Clarence Jordan
A short biography of Rep. Millicent Fenwick
About Merit Leadership
To learn more about how you can develop ethical skills that turn peril into opportunity, visit http://meritleadership.com.
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[00:00:00] Jonathan Reckford: And then to my enormous surprise, they said, "We see all this rowing in your background." I'd been a competitive rower. "And we just, we qualified because we're the host country and we just fired our rowing coach. Would you help coach our rowing team?" and, and I said, no, I'm completely unqualified. You know, they kept coming back and saying, "We really want you to consider this."
So I actually left Goldman early, went to the US rowing coaching college. The coaches, US coaches were very generous and not very scared of the Koreans. And so I ended up living in the Korean training camp with all the coaches and athletes for that year.
[00:00:30] Aaron-Narration: Hi, I'm Aaron Miller, and this is How to Help, a podcast about having a life and career with more meaning, integrity and impact. This is Season Two, Episode One: Home.
Before we begin a quick programming note, How to Help is shifting to a monthly podcast. Each season will still consist of 12 episodes, but new episodes will now come out throughout the year, rather than in one big bunch like they did last season. We hope you subscribe in your favorite podcast app so you can get every new episode.
Growing up, I lived in 12 different houses. That puts me well above the average, which is less than half that according to a study by the MacArthur Foundation. Neither of my parents were in the military, so that's not why we moved a lot. But our family's story of job changes and divorce is far from unique.
And I technically shouldn't have used the word "houses." Eight of those places were what most people would call a house, but two were condos, one was a townhouse, and one was actually a cabin. For the curious, the cabin was in West Yellowstone, Montana, while the rest were scattered around other parts of Montana, Colorado, Idaho, and Southern California.
But all of them were home, if longer for some places than others. I feel fond feelings for all of these homes, partly because each one offered its own unique experience. One of them was in the hills of San Diego County, for example, where in the undeveloped places, my brothers and I would explore by jumping from one massive rock to the next, never having to touch the ground. In another, this one in Montana, we would run around the house at night barefoot in the snow, and then rush inside to warm our feet at the red brick fireplace.
I could go on with stories like these, just as anyone could—as you could— about Christmas mornings, favorite hiding places, and neighborhood games of kick the can with kids I'd only know for about three months because our stay in that house was so short.
Most importantly, even though we moved a lot, I always had a home. Over half a million Americans are homeless right now, and around 20% of those are children. More than 13 million Americans have experienced homelessness, at some point. My dad was one of them. He slept on California beaches, not long before he landed a new job that actually made us pretty wealthy for a few years. The number of people who have been homeless rises to 26 million if you include people who have doubled up with another family as a result of losing a home.
This episode, isn't about homelessness per se, but about the fundamental human need for home. It is, I think, one of the truly universal traits of every person's experience, whether in abundance or in absence. The idea of home spans all of our stories, poems, and songs. It's where all of us can feel that we really belong.
My guest today is Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International, and author of the book, Our Better Angels. Most famous perhaps as the favorite charity of US President Jimmy Carter, you probably think of Habitat as the group that uses volunteers to build homes for people. They do that here in the US and around the world, but they also do so much more. I hope you enjoy learning about their global efforts to build a world where everyone has a decent place to live.
You're also going to enjoy hearing Jonathan's personal story and his career path that ultimately led him to his professional home at Habitat. So let's get started with this beautiful little story about why Jonathan loves his work.
[00:04:20] Jonathan Reckford: If you think about, you know, 1.8 billion people needing housing, you can get discouraged. But I think what sort of keeps me going, I think that's true for so many, is when it becomes personal, when you see the impact that safe and affordable housing has on a family. And I think about just a, a tiny story. I was coming back from the airport. My plane was delayed, it was midnight, and I was going to be back at the airport at 6:30 in the morning. And I was having a little pity party. And I'm, you know, pulling out of the parking lot, and the parking at attendant sees my Habitat logo on my jacket and "Are you part of Habitat?" I said, "Yes, I am." And he said, "Well let me tell you, I bought my house 12 years ago and it changed my life and my kids are doing well."
And we caused a traffic jam as I got to hear his story. And it's just that reminder that, you know, we get to be part of something that really is transformational. And that I think, you know, gives you the, the fuel to keep going even when there's certainly plenty of challenges in, in trying to make our mission come to life.
[00:05:16] Aaron-Narration: You might have noticed that the parking attendant in Jonathan's story said he bought his house through Habitat. This gives me a chance to clarify a common misconception about their work Habitat doesn't give people homes, but rather offers them an affordable way to purchase a home by having them earn what they call "sweat equity." The aspiring homeowners contribute in a variety of ways that can include working on site to help build their own house, helping build other houses, feeding volunteers, or staffing Habitat's, retail stores. More on those stores in a minute. In the end, they end up purchasing the house with a mortgage, which they pay just like anybody else.
[00:05:56] Aaron-Interview: This is also part of what's innovative about the model, right? Is this, isn't just sort of the way most people think of public housing. This is a path to ownership that involves investment, not just of time, but also of a purchase from the people that are, that are eventually moving into these homes. Why is that the approach? What is it that makes this the model that has worked for so long for Habitat?
[00:06:19] Jonathan Reckford: I think deep in the foundation, as I talked about where it started, those principles have really held true. Now our tactics have, have changed dramatically over time, but the basic idea was the idea of partnership and the belief that there is dignity in that partnership. And that in some ways, one of those founding sentences was no one can live in dignity until everyone lives in dignity. But that idea of partnership housing means we have three core criteria:
First that they are too low income to be able to get a traditional bank loan. So we're trying to serve a group that, that are not served by the market. Second, that they're willing to partner. And for us, that means the willingness to put in what we call "sweat equity,' where they put in hundreds of hours of literally helping build their home and their neighbor's homes, but also taking classes in financial management and home maintenance. So that they're really well prepared and have clean credit by the time they close on their home.
And then third that they are able and willing to pay an affordable, no- profit mortgage that then we recycle those funds back in the same community. So as those families make their payments, they're not only earning their equity, but then they're actually creating the opportunities for other families to have their chance.
And I think part of that has been why, even in the, the worst part of the housing recession 12 years ago, when in some markets, foreclosure rates across all income bands went up to 10, 15, even 20%. Habitat foreclosures went up to about 2%, even though we are sub, subprime lenders. But it's that preparation and sense of community and partnership that I think has made the model so powerful.
[00:07:46] Aaron-Narration: There's an elegance to this model that's now proven itself over and over. By having people earn their way into their homes, and then recycling the returns back into communities, Habitat stretches its impact to reach even more people. It's an idea that Jonathan calls leveraged philanthropy.
[00:08:06] Jonathan Reckford: It's very powerful. I talk about it as leveraged philanthropy. And we have an extra element, um, called our Habitat for Humanity ReStores. That's a chain now of over a thousand retail stores, primarily in the US and Canada, but also in Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, Northern Ireland, and a few other places. And, uh, and those are home product recycling stores where we take used products, anything that can be taken out of a house and, and salvaged and resold. And that's now over a 500 million dollar business that generates last year I think about 150 million in net revenue for our affiliates that again can go back into home building. So, the combination of those mortgage proceeds and the store profits plus philanthropy then allows us to really amplify our mission.
[00:08:48] Aaron-Interview: We have a ReStore near us and we love it.
[00:08:50] Jonathan Reckford: Oh good.
[00:08:51] Aaron-Interview: We, in fact, when we were renovating our home, we made many trips to ReStore . And one of my favorite parts about the ReStore model is not just the, the economic benefit, um, that it produces for local chapters, but also the environmental impact that it has. I mean, this is all stuff that are you know, perfectly good building supplies that would otherwise go to landfills.
Absolutely. No, it's, it's a wonderful kind of triple bottom line because we've kept hundreds of thousands of tons of materials out of landfills, uh, year by year. And, and, uh, so it really is a nice way to do good.
[00:09:21] Aaron-Narration: If you haven't been to a local ReStore, definitely go there before a big box retailer for your next home improvement project. While ReStore may not always have what you need, they often do. At the ReStore near me, I've bought light fixtures, paint, supplies, tools. All of this is perfectly good stuff that would be sitting in a landfill instead.
The Habitat home buying program and retail stores are remarkable for their efficiency, leveraged philanthropy as Jonathan calls it.
So here's the thing: the Habitat model is famous for communities of volunteers or in other words, novices coming out to build homes. Rather than only hiring experienced building crews, Habitat deliberately invites volunteers to help in the construction. This kind of thing flies in the face of efficiency. Economically speaking, we get far more bang for our buck when people specialize in their professions. There's just no way that a group of people working in banks, car dealerships, restaurants, or heaven forbid, universities are going to build a house more efficiently than a team of pros. Trust me, you don't want professors in charge of building your house. This sounds like the kind of strategy that would make any economist or business person roll their eyes.
[00:10:39] Aaron-Interview: If you wanted to build a house efficiently, you wouldn't assemble a bunch of random strangers. You'd find professionals who are skilled at it. Can you talk about why it is that you rely so heavily on volunteers?
[00:10:49] Jonathan Reckford: We think in ways it goes back to the very roots of Habitat where it started in south Georgia and then in, in West Africa with people coming together in a community model to help , originally share cropping farmers, move out of shacks into simple, decent homes. The pastor who came up with the idea of Habitat was named Clarence Jordan, and he had started an interracial farm in 1942. And you can imagine that was ahead of its time and not very popular. And in the sixties, the farm had been bombed and boycotted and harassed and, and was really struggling.
And he pulled a group of people together. And wrote this incredibly prophetic letter that really was, again, way ahead of its time, laying out an idea of impact investing called the Fund for Humanity. And that eventually became Habitat for Humanity. And what he said, and I think it was so brilliant is,
"What the poor need is not charity, but capital. Not case workers, but coworkers. And what the rich need is a wise, honorable, and just way of divesting themselves of their overabundance."
And he had a view that everyone has something to give, and everyone has something to gain, when they work together. And I think that ethos, that it's a partnership, we don't build four families, we build with families. And that experience of building relationship and community is so powerful and so missing in society today. And so for us, the volunteer piece is not critical from a construction strategy, but it's a core part of our mission from a social change strategy. And to some extent, if we don't create relationship, we can't change hearts. And then it's very hard to overcome NIMBY or to create the policy changes that we need to really enable everyone to have decent housing.
And so, so we see volunteering as a critical component, but much more in terms of the way that we change society's hearts than than to specifically be builders .
[00:12:33] Aaron-Narration: In that same letter jonathan just quoted Clarence Jordan also said this,
"We fiercely compete with one another as if we were enemies, not brothers. We only want to kill human beings for whom Christ died. Our cities provide us anonymity, not community. Instead of partners, we are aliens and strangers. Greed consumes us and self-interest separates us and confines us to our own group."
Jordan continued, "We must have a new spirit, a spirit of partnership with one another." He wrote that letter in 1968, though it would be easy to think that Clarence Jordan wrote it for today. Prophetic indeed.
And so while it might not be the most efficient way to build a home, bringing people together in an act of service is meant to build something more.
[00:13:28] Jonathan Reckford: And one of the observations I've had, and that I've loved about Habitat, is that actually going out and serving together is one of the best ways to build relationships and have difficult conversations. And so I have built with blacks and whites in South Africa, with Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, with Christians and Muslims in Egypt, with Hindus and Muslims in India. And it's not so, it's not so funny anymore, I've even built with Democrats and Republicans together. So it shows that even the greatest barriers can be, can be crossed.
But we have become economically divided. And I actually would suggest that one of the largest divides today is an economic divide. And then there's a racial component embedded in that.
One of the programs I love that COVID has forced us to suspend temporarily is our global village program where volunteers go overseas. And again, that's not because it's a good way to build houses, but I have seen just transformation happen when somebody spends a week or two weeks in a community with families and builds relationships.
And I'm very clear when I lead a team of volunteers that we're there to learn and build relationships. And we have a responsibility to take what we've learned and then go do something meaningful about it. They don't really need us there to help build the house. So we'll work hard while we're there. But it really is the, the building experience as a vehicle for relationship building. And, and in a way that's a relatively small part of our total work, but it's a really important part to me.
Some of our scaling work is much more about making markets work better so the families across the world can actually improve their own housing. And that's where we've moved from the thousands to the millions in terms of impact. But I love that more direct and personal and relational aspect of our traditional work. And we always want to have that element and I would actually argue that's needed more than ever right now in this, uh, highly polarized time.
[00:15:10] Aaron-Narration: You might have been surprised to hear that community home building is a small part of what Habitat does. The reason for that is scalability. It's simply impossible for Habitat volunteers to build enough homes for the people who need them. That's because, as Jonathan noted, markets need to work better in major parts of America and around the world. Affordable housing is a problem driven by disparities in wealth, not politics. The wealthy of all political persuasions push for housing policies that price people out of their own communities.
NIMBY, an acronym that stands for "not in my backyard," describes the pervasive opposition to higher density and more affordable housing, including opposition to the people who would live in it.
[00:15:56] Jonathan Reckford: I grew up in a college town. And I talk about that all the time, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. When I grew up, everybody who worked at the university could live in Chapel Hill.
Now you, you forward 50 years later, 40 years later, and only the wealthiest faculty, you know, in the med school or the business school can, can afford to live in town. Forget service workers, junior faculty can't afford to live in town. And so what used to be a mixed income town has really become an economically divided town. And people are having to commute in from far away.
And this issue is a bipartisan issue. Sadly, otherwise goodhearted people when it comes to welcoming or creating mixed income communities become less so. And NIMBY, "not in my backyard" in, in, California, it's BANANA, "build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything."
By making it extremely expensive to build or very difficult to build, and the way things are zoned, it really has exacerbated this challenge of supply. And if you think about college towns, they have an extra piece in which four students can actually afford to pay way, way more rent than a family can afford to pay.
So what happens then is students squeeze out rental housing from families. And again, people get pushed further and further out. So we have to build more. It doesn't mean we have to build more everywhere. But we've gotta build more somewhere.
And mixed income doesn't mean every street has to be mixed income. But we think about schools. What we know in the inequality data to be overwhelmingly true is that low income children who grow up in mixed income communities still have quite good social mobility. The American dream really holds. Low income children who grow up in concentrated poverty have almost zero social mobility. It takes a minor miracle for change.
So the data is clear. It's really about the heart change. And maybe it circles back to sort of the, the that Habitat's volunteer work is less a construction strategy than a social change strategy.
If we can change that perspective from "those people" to "Wait a minute. Shouldn't the person taking care of my child in daycare, be able to live in our community. Shouldn't my pastor be able to live in our community. Shouldn't the person taking care of my mom. Shouldn't be that police woman who is protecting our neighborhood. Shouldn't all these people actually be able to live in the same community with us?" And if we want to do that, at least around transit in logical places, we've got to increase density.
[00:18:07] Aaron-Narration: I saw this very issue play out in my own city. We're a college town too, housing tens of thousands of students. There's immense demand for what little affordable housing there is such that we even fell below a state mandated minimum. The city council considered loosening zoning rules to allow more houses to rent out accessory apartments, what are called additional dwelling units or ADUs.
And residents came out in force against the idea. One resident said he moved a Provo for the nice neighborhoods and didn't want to live in a quote "student ghetto." Of course, focusing on students alone, ignores all of the other people in our community who need affordable housing. By trying to squeeze out students, we squeeze out all the other people jonathan mentioned.
In answer to an email that I wrote supporting the zoning change, a city council member replied to say how discouraging the opposition had been. In the end, the council capitulated and our community continues to have one of the highest housing inflation rates in the country.
Some version of this story is probably playing out where you live, too. Around the world, housing pressures are only going to get worse.
[00:19:23] Aaron-Interview: As we talk about the challenges of Habitat, what are the most urgent ones you're thinking about and worrying about now?
[00:19:29] Jonathan Reckford: Well, sadly COVID has become a crisis on top of a crisis. So in many ways we had a housing crisis globally before COVID, and COVID has both revealed and exacerbated that. And so even before COVID, for instance, in the United States, you had 18 million families spending over half their income on renter housing. And, and you think then you have to make unacceptable choices about what you don't spend in terms of education and health and food and energy.
And so, so we already had so many people struggling with affordability, and then COVID really exacerbated this divide, where for people with housing and with assets and knowledge jobs, COVID was a health crisis, but economically actually has been a positive thing. The markets have skied, asset prices have exploded.
Now, if you're in the service economy or the lower income tiers in our society without assets, it's just furthered the gap because now you can't possibly afford it. We've seen housing prices growing at the fastest increase in history in our high income countries around the world. And so affordability has become even further out of reach.
And then in low and moderate income countries around the world, housing hasn't gone up as much, but incomes have gone down. So in both con-, really all our contexts now we've seen affordability get worse. And, and that's the urgency.
[00:20:45] Aaron-Narration: It's here that I want to share another story. The only time I ever saw my dad become truly overwhelmed was because of a house. He worked in commercial real estate for much of his life, and that was a boom and bust business. Our family was in the throes of another bust and the expensive house that we were in became financially impossible for us.
I was in high school at the time, and I can still remember vividly walking into my parents' bedroom to find my dad sobbing. I'd never seen him like that before and never did again since. He had just gotten news that the bank was foreclosing on our house. I was still young and naive enough that I didn't fully appreciate the moment, but I understand it now.
These days, my family and I are lucky enough to live in a house and community that we love. And we've been here for almost nine years. It's the longest I've ever lived in one place. I'm overwhelmed at the thought of bearing the weight of that same moment that my dad did. It breaks my heart every time I think back on it.
These problems persist and get worse because many people are blessed enough to never have this kind of experience. People in power statistically are more likely to have come from good housing. So they have a harder time appreciating the urgency of its absence.
[00:22:11] Jonathan Reckford: The other challenge, I think, on the "why" is that most people in positions of power and influence grew up in good housing, which is of course self-fulfilling. So I think it's not always visceral in the same way that education and health is. We all experience good health or poor health. We experience education. Many, many people have never experienced poor housing. It's it's making visible that invisible problem for people who've never known what it is not to have good.
[00:22:36] Aaron-Narration: This lack of understanding is a practical failing, not just a moral one. Decent housing is among the most high impact ways to improve the life of a family. If you find yourself wanting to help people and feel overwhelmed at where to start, housing is a great place to get involved.
[00:22:54] Aaron-Interview: There are a lot of different ways to help people. What is it that makes helping them get into home so unique compared to all the other ways that we can help?
[00:23:02] Jonathan Reckford: It's such an important question. And we realize sometimes we jump right by the why and get to the, the how and the what. And, and I would say, of course, there are so many important causes and we've been guilty sometimes as other nonprofits have of saying, well, if we just solve education, everything will be great. If we just solve health, everything will be great. If we just solve income everything will be great. Housing is not the only need, but what I would argue is in many ways, it's a prerequisite for all the other things we want.
So we know it's so deeply correlated. If you have good stable and healthy housing, then the health benefits for a child are significant and measurably better. If they are healthy, then they do better in school. If they do better in school, they have a better chance of getting income and being able to support themselves. So there's a whole parade. If you pull housing out of that equation, the chances of a child staying healthy and doing well in school plummet.
And so what we know is, is in many ways, it's a, it's a core piece of the foundation. But we also know that you need all those elements for a healthy community. And so increasingly we want to make sure not only that we build good, healthy houses that are affordable, but we build them in healthy communities where a child can grow, as we say, into all the God intends for her life or his life. And so it is certainly not sufficient, but, but if we don't deal with housing, we won't achieve everything else we're trying to do.
[00:24:18] Aaron-Narration: This is a good time to tell you about the range of programs that Habitat and its affiliates operate to improve housing in communities. In addition to home construction, they help improve housing for senior citizens so they can age in place. They respond to disasters with emergency housing. And they provide financial education to prospective home buyers. All of their efforts are being driven by research backed insights and to what creates measurable improvements to living conditions.
For example, their neighborhood revitalization program is based on a quality of life framework that measures the needs in a community so they can target the improvements that make the biggest difference. There's a spirit of innovation at Habitat that keeps them looking for new ideas.
[00:25:04] Aaron-Interview: What have you not tried yet at Habitat that you want to try or that you think needs doing.
[00:25:10] Jonathan Reckford: Yeah, I think one of the areas, this was fun because we're doing a lot of experimentation around what we call market development, one of the areas I think we have under invested in our new ways of building, especially in the, in the high income context. So if you think about the way a house is built in the US, it doesn't look that different than a house being built 50 years ago.
And you think about all the innovation. And so I think we need to do more. We've done lots of tests. So we actually just built our first 3D printed house in Phoenix. And we've had all sorts of net zero and different kinds of houses. But I think, you know, there are chances to scale with modular, which is, I think misperceived and, and we, where houses could be built in areas that don't have a lot of volunteers, but have a lot of need and the volunteers and families could finish the houses, but you would leverage the skilled labor and be able to build much faster with modular partners.
I think these partnerships, we, I'd love to see more of where private builders are building communities and invite Habitat in and have a Habitat component of a bigger community, just as Habitat sometimes is developing larger subdivisions and inviting private developers in.
But, you know, can we both model and participate? In creating mixed income, but I do think new, new building techniques. We're equity owner with our shelter venture fund in the first 3D printed house company in India. And they just built their first houses. And I do think finding new sustainable ways to build faster and, and less expensively is a key part of the future.
[00:26:32] Aaron-Interview: When you think of 10 years from now with Habitat, what do you hope to see? I mean, there's so much, you're doing so much yet to be done. What do you hope the next 10 years?
[00:26:42] Jonathan Reckford: I think for me, it's, it's expanding on and living into the strategic direction we've already started, which would be not to build our way out of the need. And, and in some ways the, the huge pivot for us at Habitat was moving from how many houses can we build, which was a great goal to, "What would it take to meaningfully reduce the housing deficit and every geography that we serve?" And to do that forces a more systematic approach to, to lowering barriers.
So what I'm really consumed with now is how do we lower the barriers so that markets work for low income families, whether they're in Cambodia or in Atlanta? And we're trying to address all of those with our market development work and our center for innovation and shelter. And we become a global leader in housing finance.
Now the US, I would say the market is broken. It's not, you know, it's not able to build housing that's affordable for a huge swath of our population. So when I think of Habitat 10 years from now, my hope is we would be the most influential housing organization in the world, measured not so much in how much we have built, though I hope we'll build a massive number of houses, but measured in the fact that we can actually see housing deficits going down and the supply of housing meaningfully increasing for families in all the, the countries that we.
[00:27:55] Aaron-Narration: Think of all the ways that our homes can be better, they could be more efficient, more comfortable, more resilient over time. They could be easier to finance or could adapt better to the needs of families as they change from one year to the next. Working and schooling from home during COVID revealed a whole host of challenges in the places where we live. When we consider how essential a home is to our wellbeing, it makes sense to put more creativity into making homes a place where we can flourish.
And for that to happen, we need more people to have decent homes. Habitat for Humanity isn't the only organization working on this problem, but they are tackling the housing issues faced by those who are at the greatest risk.
If this is something that motivates you too, you can learn more about the impact and meaning of their work in Jonathan's book, Our Better Angels. It's full of beautiful and motivating stories from Habitats programs around the world. And if you're ready to jump in to help, visit Habitat.org to learn more.
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Here in the second half of this episode, we have a chance to learn about the path that led Jonathan Reckford to becoming CEO of Habitat. Like all of our stories, his story begins at home. We'll begin with the legacy of his remarkable grandmother, milicent Fenwick. Representative Fenwick was a member of Congress from 1975 to 1983, representing New Jersey, where she championed causes like civil rights and prison reform. Legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite called her the conscience of Congress.
[00:30:34] Jonathan Reckford: You know, she had, in some ways, a storybook life in some ways, a really hard life. And as I got older, thinking about how awful it was, her parents were on the Lucitania when it was torpedoed by the Germans. And she lost her mom at a young age. She, you know, never finished high school because she went to Europe, which was exciting. And she was actually very well educated.
But then had a terrible marriage at a time where divorce was scandalous and had didn't have a high school diploma, so she couldn't get a job. Started doing copywriting and modeling and ended up being the war editor for Vogue magazine.
And then went into public life at quite an advanced age and started in the state legislature in New Jersey and led the civil rights commission for the state of New Jersey for 14 years, starting in 1958.
[00:31:16] Aaron-Narration: Jonathan's grandmother was a critical influence for the way he thought of his place in the world. Listen to how she shaped who he is.
[00:31:24] Jonathan Reckford: I was actually just reading one of her books and it's remarkable how her calls to action from the 1960s are still relevant today. And she had a huge passion for justice and the her life verse from, from scripture that she would quote to me almost every time I saw her was from Micah 6:8. She said, "He has shown you, man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? But to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." And those were her, her marching orders. And, and slowly that's become a, a life verse for me as well.
And then she would ask the grandchildren what we were gonna do to be useful. And her idea of the good life is we're supposed to be useful. And I found her fascinating. Originally I was gonna go into politics because I thought she was so cool. And she was such a fighter for human and civil rights. And I really respected that.
And she was not your conventional grandmother. She, uh, it was funny. She was stubborn. She smoked cigarettes and, and got emphysema. Her doctor said she couldn't smoke cigarettes anymore, so she smoked a pipe, which was a little unusual. She was this elegant, patrician woman, and who cared so much about poverty issues.
And Gary Trudeau met her and then created a character in the comic strip dunes bay about her. So she got a lot of notoriety around that, but Walter Cronkite called her the Conscience of Congress. And she just had this kind of iron view of what was right and wrong and, and fought for that.
And so I. I absorbed a lot and I just found her fascinating. And now it was a little scary, you know, she expected 10 year olds to, you know, wear coat and tie to dinner and sit up straight and hold your fork properly and, and be able to discuss food problems in Sub-Saharan Africa, which, you know, I found both fascinating and terrifying, but, but really interesting.
And so I was, you know, very blessed to have that relationship and, and, and that really did, I think, plant the seeds for me, certainly along with my parents, around wanting to have a life of service, though I certainly didn't know what that was gonna look like.
[00:33:20] Aaron-Narration: Jonathan's parents also helped him see how his life wasn't just for himself. Serving others pervaded their family and home life.
[00:33:29] Jonathan Reckford: My father was a classics professor and my mom stayed home to raise our large family, but was actually a, had lot of personal courage and, and was one of the first people associated with university to be arrested for picketing restaurants in the, in the desegregation times. Our family had always supported women's prisons, which desperately needed reform in the, in the fifties and sixties and, and had really worked towards justice issues.
[00:33:53] Aaron-Narration: So how did this young man, raised to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly, find his way to Habitat? You'd be excused for thinking it was a straight line, but it wasn't even close to that. It's a fascinating winding path that he walked upon leaving home.
[00:34:11] Jonathan Reckford: I was gonna go to law school and then go into politics. And I came to the shocking realization, my senior in college that I actually didn't really wanna be a lawyer. I just thought that's what you did to go into politics. And so I had to come up with another plan. And with, you know, embarrassing hubris went up to wall street and told them I would learn finance fast and they could teach other people how to communicate, despite having never taken a business class. And, and I was an English PolySci major. And then I suffered mightily for that for a couple of years at Goldman Sachs. But it was a great education and I learned a huge amount. This was the early eighties and a and a boom time. And one of the things I learned too is I probably wasn't cut out to be an investment banker.
And, and I think that was a life lesson in the sense that when I looked around, I was a competitive, ambitious person. And I realized if I competed in the wrong arena, I wasn't gonna end up with the kind of life I was looking for. To win at Goldman Sachs in that era, I couldn't lead the kind of life I had imagined living because I was working all the time and that had squeezed out faith and, and service and, and all the other things that were important.
But the first big inflection point for me was, rather than going straight to grad school, I went off to Korea . I was very blessed to get a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to work for a year in, in Asia. And Korea was gonna host the Olympics. I loved sports, ended up negotiating a job. I got to work on the first international Korean equity offering from a Korean company and went over to Korea with Goldman. They didn't know I was a junior slave.
And I set up a marketing job with the Olympic organizing committee for the '88 games. And I was so excited. And then to my enormous surprise, they said, "We see all this rowing in your background." And I'd been a competitive rower. "And we just, we qualify because we're the host country and we just fired our rowing coach. Would you help coach our rowing team?"
And I said, no, I'm completely unqualified. Even though they kept coming back and saying, we really want you to consider this. So I actually left Goldman early, went to the US rowing coaching colleges. The US coaches were very generous and not very scared of the Koreans.
And so I ended up living in the Korean training camp with all the coaches and athletes for that year. And it could not have been a more complete departure from anything that was familiar. And that was such an important year of learning about the world. I got to travel a lot after the year of work across Asia, it expanded my kind of view of the world dramatically. And I also really grew in my faith. And, and so that was a, a really transformational year.
[00:36:30] Aaron-Narration: This year abroad was a chance for Jonathan to reset his perspective on the world and to learn an important lesson on how his career could grow. If you're still trying to figure out how to find the work where you belong, what he says next is excellent advice.
[00:36:47] Jonathan Reckford: I think, and it expanded my vision of the world. Certainly, you know, back then now the world is so much smaller, but you know, Asia was so far away, so exotic, so different and it, you know, traveling across the region and, and then going deep in one country was so, so deeply impactful.
And it's funny. I found— which is certainly another life lesson— that I focused more on learning and growth than sort of advancing my career. And it's easier to say now looking back, but whenever I was really focused on advancing my career, my career would stall. When I was really focused on achieving something interesting and trying to get something done, my career would accelerate.
[00:37:24] Aaron-Narration: So when Jonathan came back to the US, he went on for an MBA, choosing Stanford because it had a program for nonprofit leadership. And again, you might think that this is what sent him to Habitat, but he still had more exploring to do.
[00:37:38] Jonathan Reckford: That started a series of unexpected jobs. And my career never made sense. My dad had kind of gotten one job for three years and then one for 43 years, that was more my image of a career. And I kept losing my jobs very quickly, but I worked for Marriot and then got laid off just after being promoted. When, when the S&L crisis hit Marriott got in serious financial trouble. And then that led to getting to go to Disney, which was a company I'd always found fascinating and interesting and worked on new businesses for the real estate arm of Disney.
And just when we were starting our family, and, and I was debating sort of what would make sense from a career in Disney, particularly not wanting to move to California. I was recruited to Circuit City stores. And, you know, they are dead now, which is such a cautionary tale, but back then they were one of the top retailers in the country.
And they had just started CarMax. And I thought it was fascinating that they were gonna disrupt the car business. And I had the chance to go to be head of strategy and communications for Circuit City city. And we took CarMax public.
And then I was recruited to be president of another dead retailer. So all my business credibility is now shot, but it was president of stores for a company called Musicland, which back then was the largest specialty retailer music and movies. And, and then Best Buy bought Musicland.
And I thought, wow, I actually had stayed in the private sector way longer than I'd ever planned. So I stayed for a year to help with the acquisition and then did what I advise everybody not to do and rejected without a plan other than I wanted, maybe it was time to go to go serve.
[00:39:06] Aaron-Narration: None of this sounds like what you'd expect to find in a nonprofit leader, but the truth is that now more than ever, our careers can follow a whole series of unexpected twists and turns. All along the way, Jonathan benefited from having a strong launching point: a decent home.
What came next was, again, unexpected and unconventional. After reaching impressive heights of career success, Jonathan turned down an offer at Best Buy and stayed home. Instead of taking a new job, he took a break.
[00:39:40] Jonathan Reckford: I would say that that period right after I left Best Buy was the next big inflection point. And I think sometimes I've described it as, you know, learning from the white spaces. Because the resume is all the, is all the, the stuff everybody recognizes, but sometimes so much of that growth is in, what's not, you know, not on the resume. And what happened is I left Best Buy with an unusually tough non-compete, where essentially I could not make any money for, for 18 months.
And with my wife's blessing, after a little time off, went on an international mission trip to rural India. And I'd always wanted to do something like that. It was very tough with a young family and, and a very busy job. And so in this case I went with a group of pastors and served just for a couple of weeks in central India.
And God just broke my heart all over again around social justice issues. And, and we were serving alongside the Bunge. And, and those of you who are aware of the caste system in India, even though it's not supposed to be enforced anymore, it's still very real. And the Bunge are literally sort of the bottom of the bottom of the of the caste system, where they're only allowed to hand clean latrines and clean up dead animals. And they are not even allowed to live in community. And about when we were there, this was 20 plus years ago, about half the kids were dying before their 13th birthday from the conditions they were living in.
And it just, it just shattered me. And I came back from that trip, and with that, saw what relatively small interventions could do to fundamentally change the course for these children.
[00:41:10] Aaron-Narration: A heartbroken open gave Jonathan a chance to finally head in the direction that would become his professional home. He could feel something called a divine irritation. Following that itch though was a longer, more challenging path than he thought.
[00:41:28] Jonathan Reckford: The pastor Clarence Jordan had a phrase I like. He called it a divine irritation. You know, that there are, there are times in life where you see things that upset you. And we have lots of that in our society. And the response is "That's terrible. Somebody ought to do something about that." And they, they change the channel. And I think that that idea of a divine irritation or, or spark is that you have that same reaction and the response, "I'm gonna do something about it." And you get off the couch and you get out into the community, decide you're gonna do something to help make it better.
So that was a little bit of my, you know, divine irritation moment. And I came back and turned down a couple of really good business jobs right away, because I had a plan, you know, with God and we had a deal. And I got to the finals of a couple of nonprofit jobs. And in both cases I was one of the finalists, but didn't get it.
And they hired somebody, uh, who had already run a nonprofit, which was eminently reasonable. And then suddenly for the first time in my life, all the doors closed and I, and suddenly I was interviewing and not getting things. I hadn't really had to actively look for a job since the beginning of my career. And it was such an important growth opportunity.
And this is actually pretty embarrassing to admit, but if I'm really honest and I probably wouldn't have known this at the time, my deal was, "God, I'll do anything you want as long as it meets my social geographic financial ego gratification, another long list of criteria"
And in a way it was a wonderful time for my family. I coached every team. I was the dad on all the field trips. I, you know, I was, I was doing a ton of volunteer work at my church and in the community. And so it was very rich on the one side and it was also tough on my ego because too much of my identity was probably caught up in my career. Yeah. And that dragged on, I had planned on six months sabbatical, which suddenly became a year, became 18 months.
And then to my surprise, I'd had an advocation of coaching and helping pastors with leadership and helping grow churches. My career had been about growing businesses. My volunteer work had been about growing churches and my local church asked if I would essentially be the COO or executive pastor of the church, so the senior pastor could really focus on being the spiritual leader and not manage all the ministry teams. And everyone I trusted career advice said, don't do this. This is career suicide. And Ashley and I really had, you know, prayed about it and had a strong sense of conviction that this is what we should do.
And, and again, this is one of those stories that works in the rear view mirror: right after I decided that, I got a call from one of the big search firms, you know, about work running an internet retailer. And I remember taking a deep breath and saying, gosh, that sounds amazing. I'm gonna go work for my local church.
And I thought I "Well you know, I'm off the market." And, and I have, I have exited the market forever.
[00:43:59] Aaron-Narration: You know what's coming next. After finally settling into a role in his community where he was doing work that scratched the divine irritation, that's when Habitat came calling. Just not for him, at least as far as they knew.
[00:44:14] Jonathan Reckford: And two years later, I was happily working at the church and the same partner called up and said, "Jonathan, do you know anybody who'd be interested in Habitat for Humanity?" And if I could have named one job that, that actually checked every one of that unreasonable list of criteria, it would've been Habitat.
And I just remember asking, "Does it have to be somebody famous?" Assuming, I thought like everyone, president Carter runs Habitat and why is he stepping down? And, and that they would pick somebody like him.
[00:44:41] Aaron-Narration: So Jonathan told his friend that he wanted the job and he threw his hat into the ring. From consideration from among the many qualified candidates, the board chose him. And after years of exploring, and at times wandering, Jonathan finally found his professional home.
[00:44:59] Jonathan Reckford: I think for me, Habitat was that perfect merge of vocation and avocation and has been, you know, endlessly complex, but also incredibly rewarding. And so it, you know, it was probably the first time in my career I could honestly say there's nothing else I want to do, which, which wouldn't have been true for any of those earlier steps. But I could also look back and see how all those, particularly, including the church and that time off were important parts of being ready or prepared to, to walk into Habitat.
[00:45:26] Aaron-Interview: Why is this your professional home after all those years of, of wandering?
[00:45:31] Jonathan Reckford: Well, you know, I was a little bit flip, but I remember the board said, "You've changed jobs, an awful lot. Are you gonna stay?" And my comment back was, "No. You know, as soon as poverty housing is done, I'm outta here." Well, we, we are not winning yet.
But also Habitat keeps changing and I find, you know, it's incredibly complex at the heart. I'd been a volunteer and a donor to Habitat before joining, but it is a mission I fully believe in. President Carter says so beautifully, you know, it's the best way he knows to put his personal faith into action in a very tangible way. I, I could get bored easily and Habitat has never been boring to say the least.
I think I found something that really matters. And you know, at some point I'll need to get outta the way so the next leader can take it forward. But so far it has been, it's really been a challenging, but joyful experience. And, and I love getting to be a part of it.
[00:46:19] Aaron-Interview: What advice do you have for people who have impact as a goal for themselves in the way that they spend their lives, whether it's professionally or personally, especially when you think of people who are at the early stage of their careers? I work with a lot of students who want a life of meaning, not just a life of professional success. What advice would you have for people like them?
[00:46:38] Jonathan Reckford: You know, I, I actually still love talking to students because I was so grateful that people took me seriously as a student. And, and I, I always make time to do that.
The first lesson actually goes to my own experience, which is "Who before What." I think people get so focused on what, and I, I really encourage young people to think hard about character and their core values because those core values create the boundary lines and that that's how you navigate the storms. We're all gonna have storms. And so I'm a huge fan of "Who before What."
And then second, the best advice I got when I was a young unformed ambitious business school student was from John Gardner, who was one of my heroes. And he retired from this incredible career, starting Independent Sector, serving a bunch of presidents, and he, and he taught at Stanford for a couple years at the end of his career.
I took a leadership seminar with him and he said, which I was so surprised at the time as a 24, 25 year old said, "It doesn't matter what you do in your twenties. Just think of twenties as continuing education and try as much as you can and learn as much as you can. And you'll eventually figure out what you're really supposed to do." And that was actually helpful in the sense that it took the pressure off to have the perfect first job.
And this sort of idea, that any misstep along the way is gonna mean your whole career is not gonna turn out the way it's supposed to. And I think that even more, that's true now, I think more careers will look like my kind of career where you're doing diagonal, and lateral and, and creative moves, versus sort of a traditional, straight upward trajectory. And I actually think the world needs more multi-sector leaders. You know, when you're young is the, is the, the least risky time to try to follow your heart a little bit.
And the other one I would advise is get international experience. So even if you spend your whole career in the US, and we're a global world, and I think the, the ability to work across boundaries and across cultures is, is so fundamentally important.
[00:48:23] Aaron-Narration: It's time to bring this episode to a close. And we'll do it with this insight from Jonathan. Thinking about his work and about his path to get there, left me pondering more deeply what the idea of home really means. So I asked him.
[00:48:40] Aaron-Interview: When you think of home as a concept, as a principle, as a value, what, what, what has it meant to you?
[00:48:46] Jonathan Reckford: I grew up, you know, in a safe, you know, home for me. Except for a sabbatical year, when my dad was in England, I grew up and lived in one house all the way, you know, from, from childhood through college. And I took that for granted there. And that meant I had a place to come back to. I had identity. In Arabic actually, the word for home, "bayt," ties to much more than four walls in a roof. It really is that sense of identity. And I think for people, home means you can go out into the world because you can be launched, because you have that foundation and you have that core identity from which you can go and explore and take risks.
As we talked about the practical side, it means better health and better education and better prospects and earning potential. But I think at a deeper level, home is that foundation for family, and community, and security that allows us to venture out. Because you know you can come home. And it is something we should never take for granted and something we believe everyone should be able to experience.
[00:49:45] Aaron-Narration: Being a person means being drawn to home. As much as we love to explore the world and discover new places, all of us find deep connection in having a special place to sleep, eat, and be with those that we love. Home means having a place to belong.
And even though growing up I moved more times than most people do in a lifetime, and I know this is true because I checked, that feeling of where I belong never went away. All of those places feel in some way like home, even if I never see them again. They were places where I was safe, and comfortable, and loved. Everyone deserves a place like this.
Many, thanks to Jonathan Reckford for giving me his time and sharing his personal story and the work of Habitat for Humanity.
I'm also grateful for the Habitat communications team, especially Erika Boyce, for assisting with our conversation and helping me learn more about their work. If you enjoyed How to Help, please take a moment to give us a positive review in your podcast app. It really helps us reach more listeners. Also be sure to subscribe so you can get our new episodes automatically.
Next time, I'll have a conversation with Dr. Naa Ashley Vanderpuye-Donton, author of the book, Hardship and Hope. For the last 20 years, she's run the West Africa AIDS Foundation and the International Health Care Clinic in Accra, Ghana, along with its founder, Eddie Donton. The two have been tireless advocates and caregivers for people with HIV, and yet have done it with an abundance of hope. Dr. Naa is also delightful, and you're gonna love my conversation with her.
To stay up to date with How to Help, subscribe to my email newsletter, where I share ideas for how to have more meaning in your life and in your work. You can subscribe or read the archives at how-to-help.com.
Our production team for this episode included Ty Bingham, yours truly, and Joseph Sandholtz, who did the editing and the music.
Our music comes from the Pleasant Pictures Music Club. If you want to use their music in your projects, you can find a link and a discount code in our show notes.
Finally as always, thank you so much for listening. I'm Aaron Miller and this has been How to Help.