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Global Mission, Grassroots Spirit: An Interview with Habitat for Humanity’s COO Tjada McKenna

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and the recent earthquakes in Mexico have led to widespread devastation, and it will take the communities affected years to recover. In disaster situations like these, many organizations step in to help victims get the crucial assistance they need.

But when it comes to providing long-term solutions to housing crises, one of the most experienced organizations is Atlanta-based Habitat for Humanity. This year, the nonprofit powerhouse hit the top spot on Indeed’s first-ever list of best nonprofits to work for, based on an analysis of Indeed’s 15 million strong reviews database.

On Indeed company pages, employees praise Habitat for Humanity’s family-like culture, commitment to diversity and inspiring mission. To get a deeper dive into how this nonprofit works, we spoke with COO Tjada McKenna.

A grassroots organization with a global mission

“We began in 1976 as a grassroots effort,” says McKenna, who has an MBA from Harvard Business School and previously worked for American Express and McKinsey. Today, however, Habitat for Humanity is a multinational organization larger and more complex than many for-profit businesses: It has 1300 affiliates in the US and is active in 70 countries.

In her role as COO, McKenna makes sure this complex operation runs smoothly. Yet despite this growth, she says the organization’s mission remains very simple: “We envision a world where everyone has a place to live.”

In realizing this vision, Habitat for Humanity might help an older person fulfill a long-held desire for homeownership or give children the opportunity to choose the color of their bedrooms for the first time. But it runs deeper than that, too, as McKenna points out:

“Where you live affects how safe you are, your access to healthcare, what kind of school you go to,” she says. And yet, wherever Habitat for Humanity is active, all its activities are united by one idea:

“At our core we are all about community, working in local communities and bringing people together who may not otherwise ever interact—to work toward the common goal of helping families help themselves to build stability and self-reliance.

A complex mix of volunteers and employees

To achieve its goals, Habitat for Humanity relies on a mix of volunteers and paid workers in every kind of role, says McKenna.

“Some of our organizations are all volunteer, others may only have a few staff members. Others are very complicated and sophisticated: large revenue organizations building 50 or 100 homes in their communities a year.”

Even so, there is not a clear divide between what volunteers and paid workers do, says McKenna.

“The volunteer that people most have in their mind is someone that hasn’t done any construction work in their life and goes up on a building site to do something, and we happily put them to work and train them. But we also have a variety of skilled volunteers, [who] could be construction industry experts, or volunteers that help us with finance, or in every aspect of business of a corporation that you would think of.”

Volunteers help run the organization’s retail stores, do strategy and logistics tasks and work as architects or even as social media managers. “There are a lot of business elements at play in managing an organization of this size,” adds McKenna.

Because there are so many volunteer opportunities, this provides a pipeline of talent for full-time paid employees. Many volunteers “fall in love” with the organization’s mission, says McKenna, providing Habitat for Humanity with a rich source of passionate, knowledgable new talent.

Meanwhile, McKenna suggests that for profit firms could learn from Habitat for Humanity’s experience working extensively with members of different communities:

“It could really expand the private sector’s view of who would be a great employee and help folks to see a wider range of skill sets and backgrounds.” 

An organization dedicated to crisis relief

One major difference between Habitat for Humanity and some other nonprofits is that their mission requires them to work in communities long after the immediate crisis and need for emergency relief has passed.

For instance, after Hurricane Katrina, Habitat for Humanity supported the construction of 6000 homes and 2500 repairs, all of which took place over years. The company also set up a new affiliate to work along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

McKenna is quick to stress that dealing with the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria will be no different. “We are absolutely committed to doing the long-term recovery and rebuilding for individual families and their communities.”

“With the scope of flood damage and other things, these hurricanes really are housing disasters,” says McKenna. “We’ve been helping families in both Texas and Florida with immediate digging out. We are also working with people on the ground accessing the shelter and housing needs in impacted areas, looking at the housing damage and doing damage assessment to help with long term planning.”

So how does Habitat for Humanity continue to retain the workers it needs once the cameras have gone away and media interest dies down?  

“Right now we have over 5000 people that have contacted us to volunteer, and most of them understand that these volunteer opportunities will be there for months and years to come. We are developing a process for working with them and helping to match them to different work sites over the next few years.”

McKenna explains that there are different types of volunteer experiences, ranging from a day on a construction site to much more complex and involved tasks.

“When people come to us to volunteer, we try to be really clear about the amount of time something will take, the level of difficulty, and just be very transparent and plan it together,” she says. “And we make sure that we accept volunteers in ways that can be mutually beneficial for all.”

“For example, on a house, or for more skilled work like electrical or plumbing, we typically don’t ask volunteers to do that work. If we have a skilled volunteer that knows that well, that will be handled differently.”

The road ahead

Although US eyes may be primarily focused on the hurricanes on these shores, Habitat for Humanity is busy all over the world, says McKenna.

“In Asia, there’s been devastating flooding, and our teams have been working in India, Nepal and Bangladesh to help clean up and build with authorities there. We also are active in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, so we are working in those places and putting together a hurricane response.

“We have an affiliate in Puerto Rico and will be supporting them. And in addition, we have a very strong organization in Mexico, so we are very committed to helping them rebuild after the earthquakes.”

For McKenna, the work is extremely rewarding. “I always have looked for ways to use my business skills to help communities,” and with their work in high demand she says that the organization is still looking for new volunteers, who feel the same way.

“If there are people who have an affinity towards helping with shelter needs after natural events, we would love to hear from them and add them to our rosters.”

If you are interested in learning more about Habitat for Humanity or for more information on how you can help with their mission, please click here.

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About Mildred Blankson

I am a Human Resource Professional with a Masters Degree in Human Resource Management. I have several years of experience in Human Resources and i hope this blog will be a great resource in helping you find the perfect job or candidate that you seek.

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