In my youth, I helped publish a humor magazine. When our first issue came out, all the writers, editors and artists involved paced the streets of Boston, thrusting copies out toward uninterested commuters and shouting, “Get your free satire here!” or words to that effect. Some people snarled at us, while others changed course to avoid us. A few took copies, but most dropped them in a wastebasket without a glance. A couple of street people came by for multiple copies, presumably to use as blankets against the night’s chill, or – more likely – toilet paper. Our sensitive, artistic souls were bruised by the public’s disinterest in our product.
For our second issue, we charged 50 cents, kept our voices low, and clutched our stacks tightly by our side. People came to us, and quite a few of them bought two copies because it was easier than having us make change. Nobody threw their copies away. We had learned an important rule of human nature: the value that people place on something is directly related to their investment in it – or, you get what you pay for. When our magazine cost nothing, that’s exactly what people thought it was worth: nothing. When it cost twice as much as the Boston Globe, people thought it was twice as good (OK, probably not, but that’s how I like to remember it).
It was actually easier to give it away for free. We made our money (to the extent we made any) through advertising. Collecting cash, making change, and keeping track of it was in some ways more trouble than it was worth – from a strictly financial viewpoint. But the value it added to the product made it worthwhile. That long-ago lesson has served me well, in my personal life and in my non-profit management career. Someone who is hungry will always appreciate a sandwich. But he values it even more if it is offered in exchange for half an hour of work.
Habitat for Humanity integrates this concept in its home ownership and repair programs. We want Habitat families to value their homes, and we want the public to value our work. So we make sure that both are deeply invested.
Habitat homeowners put between 250 hours and 400 hours of sweat equity into their own and other people’s homes. They scrimp and save to pay for closing costs. They participate in numerous mandatory workshops on financial management and home ownership. By the time the deed is recorded and they get the keys to their house, they are invested. And they value that house. When you spent time perched on a ladder in the August sun to nail siding on your house, woe to the child who carelessly splatters it with mud! Habitat owners care for their houses, because they put their own labor and money into them. And they never forget it, either. The monthly mortgage payments make sure of that.
The same principle applies to Habitat’s repair programs. Homeowners in need of critical repairs sign a contract with us to provide sweat equity and to repay a portion of the costs (on a sliding scale, based on income) through a zero-interest loan. Sometimes these loans are relatively small, and the effort of setting up a loan program and tracking monthly payments in the range of $10 to $15 is disproportionate to the monetary return. But it adds value, for the homeowner and for Habitat.
Habitat’s stakeholders are also invested in our programs and value them accordingly. We have regular Wednesday and Thursday volunteers who come out every week, rain or shine, to work on the houses. Every Saturday, groups from churches, schools, businesses, colleges and community agencies come out to dig foundations, build a floor, raise some walls, or hammer a roof into place. Many of these groups come from an organization that is sponsoring the house they’re working on. They invest with their money, and also with their employees’ time and labor. You can bet that they value that house when it’s complete – just like the homeowner who works side by side with them.
Steve Spain is the Executive Director of Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity. Over the last 25 years, CFHFH has provided first-time homeownership opportunities to over 150 families and currently builds a dozen new houses a year. To explore volunteer or sponsorship opportunities or to learn more about Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity’s programs, visit www.capefearhabitat.org. Contact Mr. Spain at [email protected]. Like CFHFH on Facebook: www.facebook.com/capefearhabitat.
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