Habitat for Humanity CEO Jonathan Reckford speaks at Elon University, Oct. 28 as Elon prepares to focus more on service opportunities upon graduation


CEO of Habitat for Humanity Jonathan Reckford sits down in an interview with Elon University President Leo Lambert to discuss service and leadership opportunities for college students and recent graduates. Photo by Miranda Siwak.

By Miranda Siwak

Good service starts with the heart. By fostering relationships and connecting with individuals from other communicates, a greater passion to volunteer is developed. One of the most famous nonprofit service organizations is Habitat for Humanity, known for building houses for communities in need.

CEO of Habitat for Humanity International Jonathan T.M. Reckford shared his story and experience of working with one of the most widely known nonprofit organizations in the world during a conversation with Elon University president Leo Lambert, Tuesday evening.

“He has led one of most success nonprofits for over a decade,” Elon University president Leo Lambert said. “Elon has had a strong commitment to service. The idea of how to create more service opportunities for students after they graduate, to make a world of difference in the world of housing, health care and so forth is a big, exciting idea.”

At 7 p.m. in the Lakeside Meeting Room, this conversation marks the formal beginning of the university’s newest initiatives that focus on service opportunities after graduation from college. This event is sponsored by the Center for Leadership, Department of Human Service Studies, Department of Religious Studies, Public Health Studies Program, Enactus and the Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement.

“I’m blown away by what you are already doing. I’m very inspired, there’s such an interest and art for service. It’s fantastic for so many of you to already be partnering with organizations across the local communities. It’s important to both use your hands and your voices; we need more advocates.” –Jonathan Reckford


Reckford is a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina and has past worked in the private sector, until becoming CEO for Habitat for Humanity International in 2005. Habitat has helped build or repair over 800,000 houses and has served over 4 million people worldwide. Photo by Miranda Siwak.

Reckford graduated from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and the Stanford University School of Business. He has since worked in the for-profit sector for Goldman Sachs, Marriott, Walt Disney Co. and Best Buy, before joining Habitat in 2005.

“I was an accidental wall street worker,” Reckford said. “I was looking in a mirror and realized I wasn’t living the life I wanted. Instead of applying to graduate school, I applied to opportunities. Going to Korea with the help of the Luce Foundation, gave me space and time to come to terms with my faith, which reset my foundation. Looking back, I would say I was opportunistic. I left the business world, had a very impactful trip in India and thought I was going to work in global poverty. Working at my church was the perfect complement to getting me ready for Habitat.”

Reckford describes how data is important, but stories are what changes hearts and makes a difference. He tells a story of a woman he met in Brazil who was called “Sonya Tata” by others. He explains how this community had poor access to water, leading to substantial health issues and risks and a disease called Chagas, which was a horrific illness due in part to the families’ homes of mud huts.

“So, Habitat came alongside the society and organized like we do and built houses that wiped out these kissing bugs, and were able to provide wells for fresh drinking water, and negotiated with the local government to build a school so girls could go to school for the first time,” Reckford said. “Habitat has moved on and replicated this in other areas. Now, these women have socioeconomic empowerment. To me, that’s what good looks like. We always talk of a hand up and not a hand out.”

Reckford discusses a large correlation between service and happiness. He goes on to mention how leadership should be all about what one is trying to do and less about them in particular.

“Good service does start with the heart,” Reckford said. “The beautiful paradox of service is in a big desire to serve. We want to avoid service to make your resume look good or check a box. I think it starts from heart and goes to what problem you are trying to solve and how do you connect.”

After discussing service and leadership, Reckford talks about his experiences in the workplace. He tells students to be able to soak up as many service and leadership opportunities as possible. Reckford talks about the importance of finding an area of interest to each individual and then what skills that they have that are necessary to succeed in those positions. He mentions how students should find things that they are really good at to distinguish themselves, to test as much as possible, try things and to go out and volunteer.

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 9.41.54 PM“I want to share a piece of advice that I got in grad school,” Reckford said. “First is who, what kind of person you want to be. When you think of what you want to do, your job is to figure that out and that’s the most important thing. It’s what is your purpose, what were you born to do on this earth. There may be all sorts of surprises but think of how much experience you can gain, pick a culture that aligns with your goals.”

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter once said how Reckford is the perfect choice for CEO of Habitat based on his background in business and his pastoral experience to develop faith, which Reckford cited as a key motivation for his work. Elon senior Julia Denick, during the Question and Answer portion of the night, discussed the thoughts of an “Elon legacy” after graduation, and asked what Reckford believes will be his legacy with Habitat.

“My hope is that in all the ways we measure impact, is that Habitat will have an impact on a much bigger scale,” Reckford said. “So much of legacy is relationship, it is much more tied to all the people we had a chance to be in community with and had a chance to have a relationship with.”

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