Guest Post

Never Turn Back

by Larry Sharp
12/23/2009

In the summer of 2008, Merrimack Valley Habitat for Humanity, an independent affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, made the largest investment in its history, purchasing an empty, one-hundred-year old former convent to be converted into affordable housing for 12 struggling families.

Not many weeks later, as we were planning the fundraising campaign that would give us the money to move ahead with our work, we found ourselves in the middle of the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression. The environment for fundraising looked awful, and our finances were strained from our recent acquisition.

We evaluated our options. Retreat was out of the question. There were few buyers out there and few banks willing to lend to any that might have been. Digging in — essentially mothballing the project until the economy turned — had some attraction. But that would mean a prolonged time of limited activity, weakening the ties between us and our volunteers and donors, while the needs of the low-income families we served were growing.

So we had to move ahead. As one of our wiser board members said, "When we bought the convent, we burned the boats. There's no turning back."

In the fall of this year, we began our most ambitious fundraising project ever, to support the largest single building project we had ever undertaken.

We turned first to those who had been our most loyal supporters over the years. They knew immediately that the same hard times that had presented challenges to us had increased the need for what we provided — affordable housing. And they knew us. They knew that we produced. Using largely volunteer labor, we have built more than 60 homes in Lawrence, Methuen, and Haverhill, Massachusetts, where incomes are low, housing costs are high, and unemployment has surged over the past 18 months.

Our long-standing friends were immediately responsive. Their confidence and generosity inspired us as we moved our fundraising efforts to the larger community.

These people too were aware of the increasing distress among low-income families and the increasing urgency of the need for more affordable housing in Lawrence and surrounding communities. As we introduced ourselves to them and shared with them the story of our past and our vision of what we could do at the convent, they began sharing more of their giving dollars with us.

In January of last year, seven of our units, some only days away from having families move in, were destroyed in a fire that wiped out a city block in Lawrence, Massachusetts. We were back on the worksite the day the city finished clearing the debris. We were the first on the block to begin rebuilding, and we now have four of the seven homes completed and occupied; the remaining three will be completed in a few months. No one else has completed rebuilding even one home.

And now we are moving ahead confidently on a project that only a year ago seemed entirely daunting. We got here by doing three things. First, we did not panic — we found our nerve. Second, we identified something in the crisis that could help us — the demand for our product, affordable housing, was growing, and that was a message we could take to the donor community. Third, we started with those who knew us, and our work, best. Their response gave us the confidence we needed to reach for new sources of funding that we had not explored before.

We are now well on our way to raising the money we need to complete our work: converting a lovely, century-old building into attractive, bright and comfortable homes for families that desperately need them. We are not there yet, but we will be.

Larry Sharp is executive director of Merrimack Valley Habitat for Humanity, which serves 22 communities in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. He found his way from Tennessee to New England via a 30-year legal career in Washington, D.C., and a Yankee wife.

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