(This Oct. 6 photo released by Habitat for Humanity International shows J. Ronald Terwilliger of Atlanta working on a Habitat for Humanity project in Nshavan, Armenia. Habitat for Humanity International is getting a $100 million gift from Terwilliger.)
The not-for-profit group announced Thursday it received the largest individual contribution in its history, an offering that will help Habitat build 60,000 homes around the globe.
It's one of the largest gifts in recent years to a group devoted to social services, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. A center official called it "remarkable" -- especially in the midst of a gloomy economy.
The donation comes from J. Ronald Terwilliger of Atlanta, a former chief executive of housing developer Trammell Crow Residential Co. and a longtime member of Habitat's board of directors.
Terwilliger said through his work with Habitat and in the private sector he's witnessed the depths of poverty, seeing people living in cardboard shacks and unspeakable filth, as well as the struggle for middle-class families to find affordable housing.
"People need a decent, safe, clean residence where they can get a good night's sleep and families can be together," he said. "If they have that as an anchor, they have a way to send their kids off to school regularly and a better chance those children will be healthy."
The donation comes at a difficult time for the Americus, Ga.-based organization, which like other not-for-profit groups has struggled with increasing demand and slowing donations amid the economic downturn.
"This is a chance to have a really deep impact," said Jonathan Reckford, Habitat's chief executive.
Habitat will use $30 million to fund an endowment that will make yearly grants to help build more houses. The remaining $70 million will set up a micro-finance fund to help low-income families around the world repair and improve their housing.
Dwight Burlingame, the Center on Philanthropy's associate executive director, said charitable contributions that top $50 million tend to go to foundations, universities, hospitals and medical research.
Gifts of that size to social services groups like Habitat, he said, are rare.
"And it's especially exceptional in this economy," he said.
The micro-finance fund will be the first of its kind for Habitat. Reckford said it will provide loans ranging from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars to some of the world's neediest.
Terwilliger, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, became Trammell Crow's chief executive in 1986 and has long contributed to affordable housing projects. He also owns Atlanta's WNBA franchise, the Atlanta Dream.
He joined Habitat's board of directors in 2000 and was elected chairman in 2007. After stepping down as Trammell Crow's chief executive last year he devoted more time to traveling the world to witness Habitat's work. He remains the company's chairman.
As a tourist and later a board member for Habitat, Terwilliger had seen firsthand the problems of affordable housing. He has also traced his interest in affordable housing to his post with the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership in the mid-1990s.
While there, he was confronted with the plight of middle class workers -- firefighters, teachers, nurses -- forced to live far from their workplaces because of high housing costs.
"That's one of the tragedies in this country, and it's not limited here," he said. "People are often so far away from where they work that they have these tremendous expenses. It's an emotional drain, it's a health drain and it's a family drain."
He called it a "moral imperative" to offer families more access to decent, affordable homes. And the short-term loan program he is helping to fund will make a lasting impression on the housing market by helping thousands of needy families, he said.
"We can provide additional solutions to families that need to build an extra room, that need to renovate their home," he said. "It helps us leverage our dollars to impact as many families as possible."
As he looks to disperse his wealth, Terwilliger said he's giving most of his contributions to housing charities. That includes a previous $3 million contribution to Habitat that helped fund a new administrative center in Atlanta.
He hopes his latest contribution will send a message to other philanthropists to step up their giving despite the troubled economy.
"My attitude is, for those of us who are fortunate enough to have made enough money that we don't feel we have to leave it all to our family, then we ought to give it back."
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