This past week, my training group and I met the founder of an American house building charity that operates in the outskirts of Antigua. Known locally as De Casas a Hogares, From Houses to Homes was started by an affable man named Joe Collins, a private investigator from New Jersey who arrived in Guatemala to build houses for poor families about nine years ago. The experience impacted him to such a degree that he returned thirteen times over the next three years, then deciding to start his own 501c3 in 2005. Six years later, his organization staffs twelve Guatemalans and hosts hundreds of volunteers from all over the world. To date this year, Joe and his team have built 105 cinderblock-and-tin-roof houses measuring 13’ x 9’, each one valued at about $1750. His yearly budget is approximately $400,000.
It was pretty extraordinary to speak with Joe about his work and the growth of From Houses to Homes, which he refers to as a “miracle.” The Guatemalan government thinks he’s pretty swell, as Joe recently received the Ambassador of Peace award and is scheduled to meet vice-president Jose Rafael Espada in the near future. Personally, I’m amazed at the rapid success of his social entrepreneurship (read: business) model, especially because it runs almost entirely on volunteer effort, goodwill and fundraising. According to Joe, maybe 4% of his yearly budget comes from grants – enthusiasmprovides the rest.
It works like this: potential volunteers must first agree to raise $500 for project costs, and then provide their own food, lodging and airfare to Guatemala. It’s pretty straightforward, and while the volunteer-work-vacation scenario isn’t new, Joe’s stories about their fundraising initiatives were what really caught my attention. $35,000 walkathons in Manhattan.$10,000 house parties.An English guy bought From Houses to Homes a truck with the $18,000 donated by friends and co-workers. People have already volunteered to start branches of From Houses to Homes in Germany and Scotlan, doing their own fundraising and sending the proceeds to the central office in Antigua. It’s remarkable how motivated people can get about philanthropy.
Even more striking is that Joe has no professional development staff. A $400,000 budget and no one is busy courting large foundations for grants or seeking endowments from wealthy donors. The mission is enough; the experience of building these modest houses and witnessing the poverty firsthand is enough to make visiting foreigners pour their hearts and minds into supporting this organization. And Joe doesn’t even outline the fundraising process formally – he makes a few anecdotal suggestions, and volunteers respond with creativity and passionate support.
The bottom line is that From Houses to Homes provides extensive infrastructure to improve the living situations of thousands of poor Guatemalans. While its approach to International Development may have plenty of pros and cons, From Houses to Homes’ funding successes and volunteer inspiration are truly admirable.