Global Mission, Grassroots Spirit: An Interview with Habitat for Humanity’s COO Tjada McKenna

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and the recent earthquakes in Mexico have led to widespread devastation, and it will take the communities affected years to recover. In disaster situations like these, many organizations step in to help victims get the crucial assistance they need.

But when it comes to providing long-term solutions to housing crises, one of the most experienced organizations is Atlanta-based Habitat for Humanity. This year, the nonprofit powerhouse hit the top spot on Indeed’s first-ever list of best nonprofits to work for, based on an analysis of Indeed’s 15 million strong reviews database.

On Indeed company pages, employees praise Habitat for Humanity’s family-like culture, commitment to diversity and inspiring mission. To get a deeper dive into how this nonprofit works, we spoke with COO Tjada McKenna.

A grassroots organization with a global mission

“We began in 1976 as a grassroots effort,” says McKenna, who has an MBA from Harvard Business School and previously worked for American Express and McKinsey. Today, however, Habitat for Humanity is a multinational organization larger and more complex than many for-profit businesses: It has 1300 affiliates in the US and is active in 70 countries.

In her role as COO, McKenna makes sure this complex operation runs smoothly. Yet despite this growth, she says the organization’s mission remains very simple: “We envision a world where everyone has a place to live.”

In realizing this vision, Habitat for Humanity might help an older person fulfill a long-held desire for homeownership or give children the opportunity to choose the color of their bedrooms for the first time. But it runs deeper than that, too, as McKenna points out:

“Where you live affects how safe you are, your access to healthcare, what kind of school you go to,” she says. And yet, wherever Habitat for Humanity is active, all its activities are united by one idea:

“At our core we are all about community, working in local communities and bringing people together who may not otherwise ever interact—to work toward the common goal of helping families help themselves to build stability and self-reliance.

A complex mix of volunteers and employees

To achieve its goals, Habitat for Humanity relies on a mix of volunteers and paid workers in every kind of role, says McKenna.

“Some of our organizations are all volunteer, others may only have a few staff members. Others are very complicated and sophisticated: large revenue organizations building 50 or 100 homes in their communities a year.”

Even so, there is not a clear divide between what volunteers and paid workers do, says McKenna.

“The volunteer that people most have in their mind is someone that hasn’t done any construction work in their life and goes up on a building site to do something, and we happily put them to work and train them. But we also have a variety of skilled volunteers, [who] could be construction industry experts, or volunteers that help us with finance, or in every aspect of business of a corporation that you would think of.”


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