It was while attending Columbus State University, pursuing a degree in history, that Ryan Willoughby discovered his passion for nonprofits.
He was invited to Bible study at Wynnbrook Baptist Church and heard someone mention a homeless feeding ministry at Highland Community Church in the Bibb City area of the city. "So I went over there and got involved and it was the most amazing thing I've ever seen. It was just so genuine," said the Columbus native. "It was literally three people inside a rundown house in North Highland with a big pot of chicken and rice."
Every Saturday, come rain or shine, heat or cold, the group would load the pot of food into the back of a pickup truck and visit various locations where homeless people would hang out. And they would help eliminate their hunger.
"It was very eye-opening for me because I realized there were people in our own city, in our own backyard, that needed help, that wanted help," said Willoughby, 28, calling it a life-changing experience. "That's when I realized that service to people is what I wanted to do for a living. I wanted to live a life that was in service to my fellow man.".
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Since that time roughly a decade ago, the road for Willoughby has taken him to an internship with a county board of health, co-founding a housing nonprofit called Truth Spring, a stint at NeighborWorks Columbus, and a working as construction manager with Habitat for Humanity in Columbus for two years.
In May, he was named executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Georgia, a statewide organization tasked with providing support in various ways to the 67 Habitat affiliates.
Although he is based out of Columbus, that job has put him on the road to reach out to those affiliates that work to build affordable housing for those needing it, and rehabilitating dwellings for others. Willoughby has put about 2,000 miles on his vehicle traveling to meet those operating the affiliates. But he had time recently to talk with the Ledger-Enquirer about his job, his passion for non-profits and about the role of Habitat for Humanity in the communities it serves, both in the city and in rural areas.
For perspective, Habitat has built nearly 5,100 homes statewide since its founding in Americus, Ga., in 1976, with 278 of those in Columbus. The organization constructs between 175 and 200 homes across Georgia each year
He recently sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Tony Adams.
So you've been on some pretty good road trips?
I literally drove one day (in his Hyundai Sonata) from Columbus to Albany to Cordele to Vidalia and up to Waynesboro ... and drove back home and it was almost 600 miles. I did that on one tank of gas, and I got home at about 1 in the morning.
Have you visited all of the Habitat locations?
I have not. I've probably come close to visiting about a third. What I try to do is make a day trip out of it and visit as many as a I can, maybe three or four affiliates. What we're starting to do is we've divided the state of Georgia into districts. So we try to have district meetings; we're having our first one in August. So we'll invite affiliates to that meeting and allow them to meet me and our board and voice any concerns they might have.
You're getting familiar with their needs?
That's exactly right. When I go to see any affiliate, one of the things I ask them is what do you need from me. My job is to be at their service. We have 67 affiliates, which means I have 67 bosses, 67 people I have to work for.
Did the Columbus Habitat construction manager position prepare you for this job?
It did. My experience as construction manager was very, very positive. It gave me a chance to interact with our families on a very intimate basis. I worked with them as far as picking out their floor plans, deciding what location their house was going to be at, picking out their colors. In that, you get to learn a lot about their family and their background and what they need and what they are expecting.
It also gave me an opportunity to explain the Habitat program and the Habitat movement to them and what it is and how they really are the backbone of that. And it gave me a lot of practical experience as far as understanding how mortgages work, understanding how a construction process for a Habitat affiliate works. Construction for Habitat is not anything like construction on the commercial side of things. When you're a for-profit builder, it's a totally different animal.
In what way?
Most of our labor force is volunteer, and unskilled volunteers. Imagine that you have 20 people coming to a job site, and 80 percent of those have never picked up a hammer or saw or anything like that. We have to do a 10 to 15 minute safety briefing every day to explain to people that here's how you should do things, here is how you should not do things.
Whereas if you're a for-profit builder, it's build as much as you as quickly as you can ... We as construction workers for Habitat have to stay on top of everything with our OSHA certification. In fact, this coming August we have fall protection training over two days.
To learn about not falling on the job?
Falling off of a roof or ladder. Falls are hands-down our biggest safety issue that we have to deal with. It's a pretty big issue for our insurance providers and for Habitat International. We have to make sure that everybody stays up to date on all of their training.
What's your day-to-day life like on the job?
Day to day I'm pursuing funding opportunities for our affiliates. One of the big things we do is advocacy and awareness, so we lobby for Habitat-friendly policies on the state level. One of the things we're doing now is speaking with our legislators about removing the sales and use tax on Habitat affiliates. People don't realize this, but when we go out and buy construction materials to build a house, we pay sales and use tax on that. In Columbus, we're paying 8 percent. So on one of our houses, we're paying probably $4,000 to $5,000 on every house in sales and use tax. And Georgia is only one of four states in the Southeast that has those taxes for Habitat affiliates. In Alabama, Habitat affiliates are explicitly exempt from any sort of sales and use tax. Considering that Habitat started here in Georgia, I feel like we need to come up to speed with the times. So we contact our lawmakers and they are very generous to us, on both sides of the aisle.
What else do you do?
I'm also in the process of coordinating training. I contact affiliates and find out what sort of training they may need. I've had some tell me they would like to have classes on grant writing and fundraising ... And I'm always looking at different organizations or corporations around the state that would be willing to support Habitat.
That's through phone calls, meetings and e-mails?
That's pretty much it, a little bit of everything. I'm pretty tethered to my phone. It means answering phone calls and checking e-mails all the time.
You must need to manage your time very well, be very detail oriented, and be responsive?
You do. That's absolutely right. Managing your time is very, very important because you get pulled from so many different directions and you have to learn what's going to have to take priority. But you also use the term responsive. And you have to do that, because when you have an affiliate contact you with an issue, you need to respond to that quickly to show that you are concerned, that the issue is important, and that you are there.
You have to be a bit of trouble shooter at times as well?
Yes. We have our four pillars of support. We have advocacy and awareness, training and networking, resource development and disaster preparedness. But I see myself more or less as a jack of all trades. Because of the fact that I was a licensed contractor, and the other nonprofit administrative experience that I have, I tell folks if you have a question about anything, just give me a call. If you have issues with your tax compliance or filling out certain paperwork ... anything they need is what we're there to provide.
You write grants to seek funding. What kind of grant did you recently do?
It's called a housing preservation grant. It's through the (U.S. Department of Agriculture). In simple terms, it's directed for folks who are doing affordable housing in rural areas. Rural areas are where there are less than 20,000 people. We have 67 affiliates in the state of Georgia, and the majority of those are in rural areas or are serving rural areas.
So you hope to get more funding for rural areas?
Ideally, yes, because most of those affiliates are all volunteer or maybe they have very limited staffing capabilities. When you get into rural areas, you don't have the donor base or industries that we have here in a metropolitan area, so it's very difficult for them to raise funds. They might be building one house every two to three years and doing small projects here and there. So we're hoping that this grant will allow those affiliates to be able to do rehabilitations, remodel and renovations to existing either Habitat homes, or maybe foreclosed properties.
It's almost a specialty to write grants effectively?
It is. One of the pillars of support that we offer to our affiliates is resource development, which is just a fancy way of saying fund-raising. Many of our affiliates, frankly, don't need our help in that respect. If you're in a large area where you've got a good donor base (such as Atlanta), you might be doing OK. But when you get into these smaller, more rural areas, every single dollar is something that you're fighting for. So we try to provide as much assistance as possible in that regard and get as much money as we can into the hands of these affiliates who need it.
I take it you've written quite a few grant applications?
I've done some in a previous life. We have one right now that we're very excited about that's coming through the Department of Community Affairs, which is going to be for down-payment assistance that we will be offering affiliates. That will be available to everybody throughout the state.
A grant application can be 150 pages or more? It's that laborious?
It is, especially when you're dealing with government and private grants. We have to show the highest level of accountability, as well as to make clear that we're putting this money to good use, to show that we're not spending outrageous amounts of money on administrative costs or simple overhead expenses. We have to show that this money is going to help.
So that requires providing massive amounts of financial data. You have to sign different affidavits and agreements showing that you're doing everything you can to get the most amount of assistance to the most people possible.
How long does it take to put a grant application together?
It takes weeks to be honest. I've been working on this one for several weeks as far as developing the programs, putting the forms together, deciding how the program is going to function. One of the big things we have to do is I have to reach out to these affiliates and say, hey, do you actually want this? The worst thing you would want to do is have somebody say, oh yeah, we would be happy to fund this program, and then your affiliate say that's really not right for us.
What tips do you have for someone interested in a non-profit type of career?
I think the first thing is getting involved with nonprofits and learning about them. They're an entirely different animal than the for-profit world. Learn about them and how they work. The big thing is you have to interact with the people they serve, and not just sit behind the desk processing paperwork. See what their needs are and learn where they come from. Non-profits are all about service to humanity.The second thing would be getting an education. I think having my education is one of the biggest benefits that I could possibly have for this field. And I think it's about setting goals and meeting those goals. If you really have a passion for assisting with battered women or for educating children or whatever the case may be, you have to sit down and establish a tangible role, say I want to help this organization grow its capacity by this much. I think when you have passion and you put that passion into action, there's really nothing that can stop you.
You must find your calling, in essence?
That's right ... There's so many different areas where people need assistance. So I think you should get involved where you would like to be involved, and let your heart take over from there.
Is learning to write grant applications a necessary skill to have?
Grants make up a sizable part of the donor base for many non-profits, so it's a good skill to have. But I would say this to any non-profit I speak to, and that is you have to diversify your funding streams. You don't want to rely 100 percent on grants because -- I'll tell you from experience -- somebody might award you a grant and then six months later withdraw those funds entirely, or say, you know what, we didn't have as much money available as we thought and we're going in a different direction. They're not obligated to give you that money.
One of the things I love about Habitat is it is a social enterprise. We have our ReStore (retail) operations. We have ReStores throughout the country, and those ReStores have been a wonderful revenue stream for us. People donate their goods, we resell them, and we use that money to build houses.
I would really encourage non-profits to find a social enterprise. I think as we move forward social enterprises are going to be the primary way that non-profits find funding in the future. Grants will still be important, but social enterprise is really where it's at.
And writing grants isn't for everyone?
It's definitely not. I hate to say this, but many non-profits have a tendency to chase the dollars. Because we're on such a cash-strapped budget and we're trying to make the most of every dime that we have, there are a lot of non-profits that tend to suffer from what we call 'mission drift,' meaning they see a grant opportunity and they think, you know what, that's not really what we do, but we think we can start doing that. (After all) that's $50,000.
So they chase these dollar bills and the next thing you know they're off doing something completely different from what they should be doing and they're not spending their time doing what they started out to do. Grants are a wonderful thing, but like all things you have to find the right balance.
For Habitat we have our ReStore operations, foundation grants and private donors, which really still is our main support.
Columbus has the reputation for being a giving community?
Columbus is exceptional in that regard. When you look at Columbus relative to other cities, particularly of this size, the generosity of Columbus citizens is unparalleled. We have a very, very generous population here. The Habitat affiliate here is very healthy. They're building seven to 10 houses every year. They're starting to do some rehabs. We've got some great long-term sponsors here; we've got some new sponsors. I'm really proud of our affiliate here. They're doing great things.
So ... you never ever had any thought about the corporate world or starting your own business?
You know, I haven't had any thoughts about that. I really haven't. I enjoy what I do so much and I think I'm still able to get a pretty good taste for for-profit things with what I do now.
Finally, when you're at the end of your grant-writing day or have traveled those 2,000 miles, how do you recharge yourself and make sure you're feeling good about what you're doing?
I have this rush of enthusiasm and joy every single time I leave an affiliate, because when I get to talk with them and find out what their needs are, and find out how we're meeting those needs, challenges for me are just new opportunities. That's all they are. When I see a new challenge, it's exhilarating for me. And when I find out that we're meeting a need they have, that's rewarding. That recharges for me.
Name: Benjamin Ryan Willoughby
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 2003 graduate of Jordan Vocational High School; earned bachelor’s of arts degree in history with a minor in communication from Columbus State University in 2008; earned a master’s degree in public administration specializing in non-profit management from University of Georgia in 2010.
Previous jobs: Construction/program manager with Columbus Area Habitat for Humanity; housing specialist with NeighborWorks Columbus; co-founder of Truth Spring Inc.; intern with Clayton County Board of Health as part of University of Georgia Archway Partnership Program; draftsperson with Hecht Burdeshaw Architects in Columbus
Family: He’s single; his father and mother, Michael and Catherine Willoughby; his grandfather, S.O. “Bob” Swygert, a retired employee of the YMCA and the Columbus Consolidated Government; and plenty of aunts, uncles and cousins
Leisure Time: Enjoys relaxing by either reading, writing or playing guitar; also enjoys going to the gym and spending time with his family; recently became the owner of a two-year-old puppy named Ace, strolling with him down at the river and through market days on Saturday mornings; enjoys visiting and eating at soul food (home cooking) restaurants
Of Note: Has volunteered with a lot of different organizations around town; not-for-profits are really his passion and main professional interest; helped establish Truth Spring Inc., a local not-for-profit that is opening a Christian school for underprivileged youth in Bibb City in 2015