The anatomy of a successful special event -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The anatomy of a successful special event

By Karan Kennedy, with Sue Johnson, Samantha Ellis and Stuart Hendry

June 2006, 7:15 am. Volunteers arrive wearing steel-toed shoes, work gloves, corporate t-shirts and lots of sun-screen, ready to build houses with HFH South Africa! Greeted with smiling faces, hot coffee and a continental breakfast, some volunteers are pulled aside to registration tables to complete the necessary paperwork; others make their way to the marquee and look down the hill at the build site. Houses completed from previous builds bear testimony that, in one week, the slab foundations at the bottom of the hill will be transformed into simple, decent houses for the next 14 families in the Ethembeni affiliate, Durban, South Africa.


The groundwork for this build was laid months, in fact years, in advance. The site was first developed for the Jimmy Carter Work Project in 2002, which built 100 of the 350 houses that will eventually fill the site. In 2005, a large, corporate build constructed 8 houses. The site has also hosted youth builds, women builds, smaller corporate builds and Global Village teams. With each build, the South Africa team has learned lessons, honed processes and developed the expertise to ensure that the build meets its objectives of:

  • Funding to pay for the event and the cost of construction
  • Volunteers that ask, “When is the next build?”
  • Increased awareness of the housing need in South Africa
  • Well-constructed houses, and moving a step closer to the completion of 350 houses within the deadline that was set as a condition of the development of the property

What has been learned in the last five years? A brief tour through the 2005 (2006?) corporate build provides some interesting insights.

Leverage relationships

As the Durban regional office prepares for this 10-house corporate build, the first step is to review the volunteer database and contact previous volunteers to see if they would be interested. Individuals that are associated with a company are contacted and asked to discuss, with their corporate decision-makers, the possibility of volunteering. Relationships going back to the JCWP are leveraged.

In addition, Ernst & Young, previously involved with builds in both Capetown and Johannesburg, agrees to sponsor a breakfast in Durban for their corporate clients. HFH South Africa (HFHSA) invites additional corporate contacts who seem interested in the build. HFHSA makes a short, power point presentation, provides hand-outs with information and follows up after the breakfast with phone calls, e-mails and in some cases, a visit to present additional information. It is not long before 10 corporations have signed up for the build. An additional corporation wants to participate, but does not have enough employees to commit to the volunteer requirement. By the time of the build, there is enough interest and funding to actually build 14 houses.

Streamline the budget – know your costs

Samantha Ellis, the event coordinator, puts together the budget and determines the event costs. By using local venders, keeping the food simple and recruiting experienced volunteers to staff the event, Ellis is able to keep the budget reasonable and also build in a buffer. In fact, extra funds are used to buy two-way radios for improved communication between crew leaders and key staff. From experience, HFHSA already has a good idea that the event will cost R7,500 (US$1,021) per corporate plus R50,000 (US$6,805) for construction costs.

Sign an MOU with the corporation—get the money up-front

Sue Johnson, resource developer, is the primary contact with each corporation. When a corporation decides that it will participate, Johnson ensures that the corporate partner understands its obligations as well as the support that Habitat will provide. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) is signed that spells out both parties’ obligations and the terms of payment. The payment covers the materials for one house and the event cost, split in two installments. The first installment is due at the time of the signing of the MOU, while the final payment is due two weeks prior to the event.

Johnson also interviews the recipient families before the build to explain to each family that corporate volunteers will be helping them construct their homes. She then profiles each family, their history and current living conditions. These profiles are sent to the corporate team leader so that the volunteers will have information, in advance, about the family that they will be working with.

Streamline processes, delegate

After the MOU is signed, Ellis sets up communication with each individual who has been identified as the corporate team leader. She provides each of the team leaders with the team leader guide and a check list, detailing all the tasks that need to be done to organize the volunteers for the build. Each corporation is responsible for signing people up, deciding who will come on which day, organizing transportation, bringing extra snacks and drinks, providing name tags, collecting the registration and release forms, and distributing the electronic volunteer handbook.

Manage expectations

Orientation prior to the build sets expectations for the corporate participants as well as the homeowners, and stresses that Habitat for Humanity is not a “hand-out” organization. A natural confusion comes from the idea that the corporate is “sponsoring” the house. If the corporation is donating the cost of the house, why does the homeowner need to repay? For that reason, HFHSA no longer uses the term “house sponsorship,” but talks about donations to the house-building program. The volunteers are building the house with the homeowner. In the true spirit of Habitat, both the corporate donors and the homeowner recipients understand that it is a partnership.

HFHSA is very strict about corporate partners giving gifts to homeowners. A major donor offers to provide washing machines for the homeowner families, but Johnson explains: “You can not come in and give10 families washing machines and not the rest.” The corporate partners “get it” immediately.

Instead, the corporate volunteers will provide a house-warming gift for the dedication. HFHSA sets the gift at a certain value and each family receives the same gift—a bag of groceries or blankets or towels.

Homeowners are notified well in advance of the dates of the build to allow time to get off from work so that they will be able to participate in the build along side the volunteers. The relationship between the homeowner and the volunteers is an important part of the build.

Plan ahead; have plenty of resources/staff on site

As the date of the event draws near, Ellis is very busy. There are regular bi-weekly meetings and then weekly meetings with the various HFH regional staff, affiliate staff and staff volunteers who will be involved. Because it is such a large event, experienced staff have been recruited from the other regional offices and Stuart Hendry, the Special Events co-coordinator, arrives to help Ellis with the details.

While the regional office takes care of the event planning, volunteers and fund-raising, the affiliate takes care of the construction preparation. The affiliate manager is working with his construction team to prepare the foundations. Because of the difficult, hilly terrain, special care is taken to make sure that the slabs are poured and cured correctly. Engineers are called in to inspect the site. The storeman assembles and assigns tools for each site. If there aren’t enough tools, they will borrow from another affiliate.

In addition to a construction supervisor and crew leader on each site, there will be block leaders who will each be in charge of 3 or 4 houses. While the construction and block leaders are Habitat staff, the crew leaders are volunteers, not from the corporation but from past builds, who are able to participate for the week. Ellis has worked with each of them before, but she brings them together for training before the event, to make sure that each understands his/her role in providing leadership to the team—making sure that there is good communication between the construction supervisor, the homeowners and the volunteers. Any issues or problems will be reported to the block leader, who steps in with additional expertise or takes steps to solve the problem—finding additional tools, for example.

Make safety a priority

Safety is a top priority, both construction safety and also over-all safety of the site. For this build, one of the corporate participants, ADT Security, is donating guards during the day to monitor the vehicles, and guards at night to protect the marquee and sound equipment. In addition, the affiliate community has been organized to provide roving security patrols. People in the community know who is supposed to be there and who isn’t.

A tent is set up for emergencies with professional paramedics who are volunteering for each day of the build. The paramedics handle most of the injuries, typically a hammered thumb or a grazed knee. However, if there is a serious injury, they will call an ambulance and alert Ellis, who keeps all the registration forms with her throughout the day. The registration forms are alphabetized, and she will quickly locate the right form to see if there is a medical condition or allergies that need to be communicated to the paramedics.

The biggest health issue for South Africa is dehydration. The combination of high humidity and high temperatures is particularly dangerous for volunteers who are accustomed to working indoors. Each build site has a person designated to remind the volunteers to drink plenty of water, and bottles of water are available at each site.

In addition to a “safety” briefing each morning for the volunteers, the crew leaders have been trained in site safe. The block leaders walk around looking for potentially dangerous situations.

Monitor at the beginning and end of each day

At the end of the day, the crew leaders, construction managers and block leaders gather to look at the issues that came up on site. Also present are key staff – the store manager, the site manager. One of the crew leaders takes notes to capture major issues that will be part of the final evaluation at the end of the build. The events of the day are reviewed, issues that need to be resolved identified and goals set for the next day. At the end of the session, the solutions are already in the process of being implemented.

7:00 am. Day two. Crew leaders and construction managers collect the tools from large containers where they have been locked up for the night. A tool monitor with a clip board checks off the tools that have been assigned to each group. Trucks deliver materials and tools to each house so that everything is ready when the volunteers arrive for the second day.

When everyone has gathered, Hendry begins the orientation, stressing safety and security. The briefing is both technical and visual, demonstrating how quickly something can go wrong and how important safety is to a successful build.

8:00 am. The crew leaders and home partners come up the hill from the build site, join the group of volunteers and are introduced. Goals are set for the day. Feedback from the first day’s evaluation indicates that two houses are behind schedule. This problem was anticipated since one of the corporate partners sponsored a house but wasn’t able to send volunteers. Ellis asks if anyone would be willing to switch houses to help out. The response is overwhelming. There is a sense of camaraderie among all of the volunteers. They all feel responsible and challenged to complete all of the houses by the end of the week.

3:30 pm. Day three. The crew leaders gather the volunteers for a review of the day’s activities. What did you enjoy about today? What was most challenging? What could we do better tomorrow?

After this quick wrap-up, they clean up the work site, gather the tools and load them into wheelbarrows. Trucks pick up the wheel barrows so that they can be checked in and locked up for the night; then circle back to give tired volunteers a ride up the hill.


The volunteers stop for a last look back down the hill, take pictures of the progress of the day and return to their cars. As the volunteers leave the site, the crew leaders and staff are gathering under the marquee; they bring the feedback from the day’s evaluation, address any problems and set goals for day four.


Evaluate and incorporate “lessons learned”

At the end of the build, the HFH staff and volunteers gather for one last time. This final review is to capture what went well and what didn’t go well as a whole. Blockages are identified and the lessons learned incorporated into the planning for the next event. While evaluation forms are available for the volunteers, this method of oral evaluation and capturing lessons learned in one document has proved to be more efficient.

Follow-up with thank you letters; maintain contact

Ellis and Johnson work together to enter the names of the volunteers into a database. A thank-you letter is sent to each corporation with any follow-up pictures or evaluation forms, as requested by the corporate team leader. Each volunteer will also be placed on the mailing list for a monthly newsletter.

One year after the build, were the goals accomplished?

In June 2007, a 20-house build will complete the 350 houses, meeting the deadline for the site development. Johnson is pleased to report that even before the publicity for the build is sent out, five corporations have signed up. The experience, which starts out as a team-building exercise for the corporation, becomes much more for the volunteers. Johnson explains: “So many drive on the freeway to their offices by shacks that line the freeway. The build is an opportunity to move into an environment that they would never experience otherwise. It is very, very powerful.”

Karan Kennedy is director of International Projects at HFHI. Sue Johnson works in Communications and Resource Development at HFH South Africa; Samantha Ellis is Event and Volunteer manager for HFH South Africa KZN and Stuart Hendry is Special Events co-ordinator for HFH South Africa.