Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) estimates that more than one billion people around the world live in substandard housing or no housing at all. In fact, just in the United States, around 9.3 million households are living in overcrowded conditions or physically inadequate housing. In light of these statistics, HFHI’s founder and president, Millard Fuller, was looking for a solution to help bring the message to more people around the world—to help educate and train people to lead the march toward the elimination of substandard housing around the world. Fuller discovered his solution when he heard keynote addresses covering the corporate university model, and Habitat for Humanity University (HFHU) was born.
“Maybe three years ago, Millard Fuller, our president and founder, got a notion that what Habitat for Humanity could really do to not only benefit its volunteers and paid staff, but really to benefit the world at large would be to create an entity that allowed everybody out there—and I mean that in the most literal sense—to understand what his or her contribution to the elimination of poverty housing could be,” said Dr. Shari Campbell, project director for HFHU.
Campbell explained that literally everyone in the world should be able to learn something via HFHU. “This is what distinguishes us from a staff-development function or from a more traditional training function, because our mandate is not only to create learning opportunities for the folks who are affiliated with Habitat, either paid or volunteer staffers, but also to create things that would allow folks in academia, in the policy-making realm, in the corporate realm, in other nonprofit organizations, students and people on the street to understand, first of all, the urgency of poverty housing around the world and then to see how they can fit into that and how they could contribute,” she explained.
Campbell said that the bulk of HFHU’s curriculum deals with the issues faced by folks who need to hit the ground running at the local affiliates, the national programs and the corporate headquarters, helping them to increase their productivity and understand how Habitat does construction, how it does performance reviews, how it nurtures families, selects families and manages finances and fundraising, what Campbell called “traditional, in-the-family kinds of things.”
Campbell explained that for a global nonprofit with operations in 89 countries, technology differences in the end users present a real challenge. “Trying to figure out the technology solutions that will allow us to serve people here in the States who have T-1 lines and will allow us to serve the person working in an affiliate in Botswana who may or may not have Internet access at all,” she said. “When you talk about a blended distance learning solution, that has been the big challenge.
HFHU decided to define the default end-learner as someone with a specific set of technologies, and it set the bar fairly low so that fewer people would be shut out. Then, options were added for users with more advanced technology. HFHU is also committed to making its learning content available on CD-ROM in addition to online. “Virtually everyone that works for us has a computer and has a CD-ROM drive,” explained Campbell. “The only problem is that it obviously can’t be updated as swiftly, but at least it allows our folks anywhere to have access.”
In addition to the technological challenges of being a global operation, there are language and cultural challenges. Campbell said that HFHU needed to make its learning blended in terms of delivery mechanisms, but also in terms of the language, learning styles and learning preferences of people from different cultures. She said that she and her team call this the “Mr. Potato Head model.” HFHU provides the potato head, and the local trainers and subject matter experts put on the right hats, eyes, noses and arms—the pieces that work for their particular culture.
Campbell said HFHU relies on its subject matter experts and trainers locally to uncover the best practices and the most important pieces of knowledge to share. “A few staff people at headquarters can’t and shouldn’t be the ones carrying this initiative,” she said. “We need to be the people laying down the railroad tracks and putting the cars on the tracks and moving the information around, but the folks putting the information in the cars need to be our subject matter experts and our trainers and our leaders around the world. So one of the big challenges is coming up with the processes to make it easy for folks to contribute things and for us to work with them to disseminate it.”
In addition to gathering best practices from Habitat trainers, experts and volunteers in the field, HFHU will work with academia to perform research. “We have 89 countries’ worth of field research labs that academics could use to study the problems they are interested in, and then at the end of it, Habitat for Humanity finds answers, rigorously investigated answers, to some of its persistent challenges,” said Campbell. “Then we can jump back into the cycle and ‘translate’ the academic output, the somewhat esoteric scholarly articles. We can translate them back into practice through courseware or whatever is most appropriate to the topic.” By bringing academic theory together with actual practices in the field, Campbell said HFHU will not only provide a valuable research tool for academics, but will also provide itself the means to discover new best practices.
Being a nonprofit, Campbell said HFHU faces budgetary constraints that leave her “Bambi-eyed” at conferences where corporate university leaders talk about their spending on learning management systems and other learning technologies. She explained that HFHU does not have an LMS or an LCMS. “We’re trying to figure out how we can perhaps create one that has the functionality we need and can be scaled up down the line because we just don’t have hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to purchase and implement an off-the-shelf solution,” she said.
Still, Campbell emphasized the importance of getting the leadership involved in the learning initiative. She said that while getting buy-in from senior leadership is important, she would take it one step further to say that they need to do more than buy into it. “They really need to grab a hold of it and see themselves as major players in it and help you tie your curriculum goal to the strategic plan of the organization to serve almost as a de facto governing body.” This is the model HFHU uses. The senior leadership looks at the strategic initiatives for the next few years and then sorts out the pieces that have learning- and knowledge-related implications.
For now, HFHU is just getting started with some basic instruction for the people who get involved with the organization. Campbell said that delivering this basic learning via HFHU will take a load off the classroom trainers, who will not be forced to constantly redeliver this basic instruction. “We have such turnover architected into our model because we rely so heavily on volunteers that many of our trainers spend the majority of their time just constantly reacquainting the new people who come in and never get tot turn to some of the more mature affiliates and some of the more mature volunteers,” said Campbell.
Over the next few years, HFHU will roll out higher level topics and will broaden its pool of offerings. And as a nonprofit, HFHU is looking for all the help it can get. “We are doing all of this with the assumption that we make alliances and partnerships with corporations and academic institutions and so forth,” said Campbell. “Folks out there can work with Habitat in ways other than swinging a hammer, which we always need and is great fun, but now we have knowledge hammers that people can swing. If there’s corporate folks out there who would love to give a lecture on an aspect of leadership management for our lecture series or CIOs who have interesting technology solutions and a great cadre of technical folks who would like to contribute their expertise, there’s a huge array of ways folks can get involved, and we would love to talk to them about that.
To find out more about Habitat for Humanity and ways you can get involved, see http://www.habitat.org.
Emily Hollis is associate editor for Chief Learning Officer Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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For more information, see https://www.clomedia.com/common/newscenter/newsdisplay.cfm?id=2218.
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For more information, see https://www.clomedia.com/common/newscenter/newsdisplay.cfm?id=2217.
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For more information, see https://www.clomedia.com/common/newscenter/newsdisplay.cfm?id=2200.
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For more information, see https://www.clomedia.com/common/newscenter/newsdisplay.cfm?id=2209.
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For more information, see https://www.clomedia.com/common/newscenter/newsdisplay.cfm?id=2201.