One-fifth of the world’s population lives on less than $1 a day, according to the World Bank. In sub-Saharan Africa, the percentage is double that. About 1.6 billion people around the world live in substandard housing and 100 million are homeless, the United Nations says. In the U.S. alone, the National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that as many as 3.5 million people experience homelessness during the year.

The numbers are mind-boggling and overwhelming. Unless you’re Bill Gates and your best friend is Warren Buffett, can one person make any difference at all? Does it make sense to even try to help?

The answer to that question comes in simple language from people such as Jose Luis Rincon. Once an impoverished construction worker in the city of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, Rincon now has his own business making wheelbarrows thanks to a loan from HOPE International, a micro-finance organization started by Jeff Rutt of Keystone Custom Homes in Lancaster, Pa., that now works with 200,000 entrepreneurs in 13 countries.

“Before the loan, my life was destroyed,” Rincon says. “I didn’t have tools to work. I had no food, so I sold my tools for food. Maybe I wouldn’t be here right now.”

Then there’s Diane Cooper of Raleigh, N.C., whose family’s life changed forever when they moved out of a cramped apartment in a dangerous neighborhood and into a home of their own built in the 2006 Habitat for Humanity Home Builders Blitz, the largest single building event in the organization’s history.

“I just feel safer,” Cooper says. “My kids will go outside in the yard,” something she couldn’t let them do before because of fights and drugs.

The blitz, during which home builders and their trade partners completed 459 homes, was the result of the quiet leadership of Tom Gipson of Raleigh, N.C.–based Thomas Gipson Homes.

Both men took the home building activities they conduct every day and leveraged them for an impact that has literally spanned the globe.

Rutt and Gipson are extraordinary examples of the kind of leadership and generosity that the Hearthstone Builder Humanitarian Awards were created to recognize. Sponsored by Builder and Hearthstone, a national provider of financing for builders, the awards recognize individuals who model—and inspire—selflessness. Funds from this year’s awards will enable the winners to designate a total of $350,000 to further touch the lives of families here and abroad.

When Jeff Rutt’s FordExpedition was totaled in an accident, he settled on a Nissan Pathfinder as a replacement vehicle. The salesman tried to sell him a $6,000 upgrade package. Rutt, the president of Keystone Custom Homes in Lancaster, Pa., a company with revenues of $110 million in 2006, could certainly afford it. In the end, he opted for the standard features. He didn’t need the extras. And besides, $6,000 would fund $50 micro-loans (see “What Is Micro-Credit,” page 211) for 120 families in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“He just knows that for every $50 he saves, it’s another family that can get out of poverty,” says Peter Greer, president of HOPE International, the nonprofit ­micro-finance organization that Rutt founded in 1997. “It’s a bigger picture of Jeff practicing what he preaches.”

Rutt is indeed a man whose life reflects his beliefs and values. A deeply committed Christian, he has traveled extensively overseas on mission trips. It was one of those trips, to Ukraine, that planted the seed that would become HOPE International. His church had been sending shipping containers of food and medical supplies to a church in Zaporozhye. What the Ukrainian church wanted, though, was a way for its members to help themselves.

Rutt researched various business opportunities, settling on a sunflower seed processing operation. It sat in Ukraine for a year without being touched, from which Rutt says he learned an invaluable lesson: The local residents know their market better than an outsider.

Rutt started reading about micro-credit, a method of addressing poverty by providing very small loans to poor entrepreneurs who have no access to credit.

A farmer’s logic

It made all the sense in the world to Rutt, who had spent his first 10 years after high school putting in 100-hour weeks as a dairy farmer. Hungry to leave behind the bone-aching work and intent on making a better life for his family, he sold his herd in 1985 and went into real estate, selling houses and buying scattered lots to build on. He opened Keystone Custom Homes in 1992. He’s since been recognized three times by Builder as an America’s Best Builder honoree.

Rutt started traveling to Ukraine on mission trips about the same time. Five years later, with his home building business booming, he incorporated HOPE International as a nonprofit organization.

It was a gamble, to say the least. Micro-credit had never been done in Ukraine. The first year, HOPE issued 12 loans. “When I first started Keystone, we built 12 houses in the first year, too,” he says.

“I thought if we got the loans repaid at all, it would be good. But we’re not doing them any favors if they don’t repay the loan on time. There is no dignity if they don’t have repayment. As a builder, that resonates with us.”

Loan repayment is central to the concept of micro-credit. The borrower isn’t getting charity from someone who pities him; he’s getting a loan from an investor who believes in him. Paying it back gives the borrower the same sense of self-worth that a home buyer gets when he makes his final mortgage payment.

Today, Nadiya (“hope” in Ukrainian) Ukraine is the largest micro-credit organization in the country. Self-sustaining, its profits support Tomorrow Clubs, a children’s ministry that serves about 10,000 youngsters in after-school and summer camp programs.

But the work in Ukraine proved to be just the starting point for HOPE International. Rutt hired Eric Thurman, a leading expert in international philanthropy, as its first full-time employee in 1999. Greer, who had run micro-finance programs in several countries, came on board as HOPE’s president in 2004. By 2007, HOPE International had disbursed nearly 100,000 loans to more than 50,000 clients in 12 countries, with a portfolio of $6 million in outstanding loans.

Realized dreams

The stories of changed lives are countless—and inspiring. Mama Atiya and her six children were destitute and homeless after the death of her husband. Tradition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo dictates that a man’s family can claim his estate when he dies, and her in-laws had taken everything she had. Her parents took them in, but she dreamed of owning her own home. On her meager salary as a smoked fish seller, it was never going to happen. A $55 loan from HOPE International allowed her to start her own business. After two years, she had saved enough money from her business to buy an apartment—and hopes to buy a second one for her older children.

Jose Luis Rincon began working with Esperanza (“hope” in Spanish) in the Dominican Republic city of San Pedro de Macoris in 1999. A construction worker who had sold his tools to buy food, his life was ruined, he says. Through loans from Esperanza, he received training as a welder and purchased tools and supplies to start a successful business making wheelbarrows. He’s recently expanded into selling wheelbarrow tires as well.

“Now I have a business, and I am building my own house,” he says. “I have a truck. Before, I didn’t even have a motorcycle. I have good prospects for the future.”

what one man can do

The fact that Rutt has chosen to invest so much of his time and resources—HOPE International shares office space with Keystone Custom Homes—outside the U.S. was one of the reasons that Hearthstone Award recipient David Weekley decided to nominate Rutt for the award. Weekley also has placed an emphasis on making contributions overseas, primarily because there’s an extensive safety net for the poor in the U.S. that doesn’t exist abroad. Plus, small contributions in the U.S. can’t accomplish very much. But in a country where the average person lives on $1 a day, even a modest donation can literally change lives.

“Most people get involved in things in their own community, and that’s great,” Weekley says. “I decided I needed to get more leverage in my donations and looked outside the U.S. To find another person in our industry doing that was incredible to me. The more I delved into the idea, the more I saw parallel paths between micro-finance and entrepreneurship. Jeff provides an opportunity for all builders to see what one man can do. You can create great change in the world.”

Early on, it became obvious that HOPE needed a steady funding mechanism. Rutt attended a seminar about using houses as a way to fund charities. Houses for HOPE was organized before he got home. Born and raised in Amish country, where neighbors working together to help each other with construction is second nature, Rutt embraced—and championed—the concept of builders, their trade partners, and suppliers donating time and materials to build a spec house. Proceeds from the sale are donated to HOPE International. To date, 38 builders in several states have built 59 houses, raising $6.5 million.

Six of those houses have been built by Perry Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Homes in Aurora, Ill. An ardent fan of micro-­credit, Bigelow is exuberant about the impact that the profit from those six houses—$1.2 million—is having in the world.

“One lousy little builder built six lousy little houses, and it generates resources for permanent economic sustainability for 200,000 people; 30,000 to 40,000 kids will go to school,” he says. “It’s the most incredible leveraged thing you can do. … The work I do as a builder pales by comparison.”

What Bigelow likes best about the concept is that “my trades and I are able to do what we do every day,” he says. “We leverage that in a way that doesn’t cost us very much, and we get such an incredible amount of good from it. … It makes it easy to do something really good.”

Electrical contractor Rich Martin feels the same way. Martin’s company, R.S. Martin of Leola, Pa., has donated complete electrical packages for all 18 Houses for HOPE homes built in the Lancaster area. Two more are underway. “It’s a way for us to contribute without major interruptions,” he says. “It’s another house on the schedule. We just [skip] the payment.”

The payoff, he says, is something much more valuable than a paycheck. It’s the ability to use his time and talents to live out his faith and help others. And by all the trade partners and suppliers pitching in, no one feels overly pinched.

“Through the efforts of HOPE, a little goes a long way,” Martin says. “It’s such a small thing on our part. As business people, it’s part of our moral obligation to help others. You can’t put a price tag on benevolence.”

But you can put a price on the ability to lift a family out of crushing poverty into a life with hope. It’s as little as $50. Just ask Jeff Rutt.

Kevin Campbell wasn’t surewhat to expect when he moved his family from Americus, Ga., to Raleigh, N.C., to work with builder Tom Gipson on Habitat for Humanity’s Home Builders Blitz 2006.

“I was thinking, ‘I hope he’s a nice guy since I have to work with him,’” says Campbell, who serves as Habitat’s director of industry relations to the home building business. What happened next has stuck with Campbell ever since. Gipson and his wife, Pat, invited Campbell and his family to dinner at their home. Shortly after they arrived, Gipson asked Campbell’s 15-year-old twin sons if they’d like to see some cars.

Heading downstairs to the garage, the boys were stunned to find a collection of vintage vehicles, including a 1966 Mustang convertible, a 1969 Jaguar XKE Roadster, and a 1947 Rolls Royce Sedanca de Ville.

Then, Gipson did the unimaginable.

“When you go to prom, you can use any of these cars you want,” he told them. They swung for the fence and picked the Rolls. “By the end of the night, they were calling it ‘the prom car,’” Campbell recalls. When it was time for Campbell’s son, Micah, to attend his junior prom, he and his date arrived at the dance in the Rolls with Gipson behind the wheel in chauffeur’s cap, ready to roll out a red carpet for their entrance.

That’s just the kind of person Gipson is—someone who takes delight in making people feel valued, and who doesn’t wait to be asked when he sees a way that he can make a difference. He’s also an extraordinarily generous individual, who has used both his own money from years as a successful home builder and an inheritance to establish a family foundation that has supported a host of local charities.

A community visionary

The list of charities that he has contributed to is extensive and includes Pan-Lutheran Ministries, the Food Bank of North Carolina, Muscular Dystrophy Association of Wake County, Grace Lutheran Church, the Assistance League of the Triangle Area, North Carolina Symphony, the Baptist Home for Children, and the Homebuilding Community Foundation.

One of his latest contributions is a $1.5 million leadership gift to the North Carolina Museum of Art to help fund its expansion. His gift will underwrite the entrance court, which will be the first thing patrons see when they arrive at the museum, a contribution that he initiated. That’s rare in the art world, where museum directors often spend years building relationships with major donors. Gipson offered to help without being asked.

“[Tom] identified himself as someone who wanted to help,” says museum director Dr. Larry Wheeler. “I’ve cultivated people for a dozen years and gotten far less.”

But by far, Gipson is best known for starting Habitat’s Home Builders Blitz, a five-day event in 2006 that drew 1,000 builders and trade partners to approximately 130 sites nationwide. The 459 houses that were built that week marked the largest single event in the organization’s history.

It all started in 2002 in Raleigh, when Gipson organized and led the first builder blitz of 12 houses, in large part because he had worked on Habitat houses and found himself stifled by the pace.

“It’s frustrating to go out and supervise church ladies putting down a floor in a day,” he says, “when I could do it with a nail gun in an hour.” If builders did all the work, he reasoned, families would have houses sooner and Habitat could build more houses. The following year, he did it again, ­doubling the results.

the national stage

The next step seemed clear enough. If a group of builders could do this in Raleigh, imagine the impact if it were done nationwide.

Gipson could imagine it and took the idea to Millard Fuller, founder and then-president of Habitat for Humanity International. To the surprise of everyone—except Gipson, perhaps—it was accepted.

“It’s unprecedented for one person to come into Habitat,” Campbell says, “propose a national event, and get it approved.”

Habitat International’s involvement included sending Campbell and another staff person from its headquarters in Americus, Ga., to Raleigh to work with Gipson. For the next 18 months, Gipson traveled extensively—at his own expense—to meet with Habitat affiliates and builders, lining up participants by explaining how it worked in Raleigh.

Having Gipson, a respected, successful home builder there made all the difference, Campbell says. “It changed the whole conversation,” he says. “It’s hard to get builders to go to meetings. We made our first presentation in Charleston, [S.C.] Everyone said yes. The affiliate talked about 12 houses; the builders said they’d do 20. It’s an unbelievable concept to get that many people together to build that many houses in that short amount of time.”

A different approach

It’s no surprise at all that Gipson could make the builder blitz happen, says Tim Minter, executive vice president of the HBA of Raleigh-Wake County, where Gipson has been an active member for years.

“Tom is one of the most persistent people I know,” Minter says. “He’s a very quiet person, which is unusual for a project that big. He works behind the scenes, plugging forward. At the beginning, he got resistance from me. Every time we talked, he’d bring it up. It was always, ‘You got a minute?’ That’s where he’s so different. We’ve got a lot of Type-A personalities in the HBA. He’s an A-plus, but it’s a ­different approach.”

He also leads by example, Minter says, and has an ability to share his vision for an end result. “He’s able to paint a picture we’re all able to follow,” Minter says.

One of the first builders Gipson called for the original builder blitz—and every once since then, was Mark Massengill, a Raleigh-based custom builder who served as his co-chair the second year and as site supervisor for the 2006 blitz.

“I thought he was talking about a couple of houses on a Saturday afternoon,” Massengill says of his first conversation with Gipson about the original blitz build. “I wound up giving away three houses. … I don’t get up at 5:30 a.m. unless I’m going fishing. I was up at 5 or 5:30 every morning to make sure people had what they needed. It’s as good a tired as you can get.”

The result, Massengill says, has been 56 families in Raleigh—and hundreds more nationwide—who have homes who would not have had them otherwise.

“A little girl wanted to show me her room,” he says. “She’d never had one. The woman I built the house for was raised in the projects, but generations after her will do better. The outreach is huge. … It shows a builder who thinks he can’t afford it or do it that it’s not that big of an outlay.”

The next chapter

For Gipson, the result was more than worth the effort it took to make it happen.

“Without me, those 459 homes wouldn’t have been built,” he says of the 2006 blitz. “I gave 40 percent of my time for three years and got 459 homes worth $25 million. How can I spend my time and my talent any better?”

The answer is, by doing it again. Gipson is back on the road, recruiting for the 2008 builders blitz, scheduled for the first week of June. The number of sites has jumped from 130 to 200, despite the downturn in the housing market, a testimony to Gipson’s ability to show builders that if everyone does their part, they can make an impact. B

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Raleigh, NC, Lancaster, PA.