How Habitat for Humanity Builds a House, One Expense at a Time


Every week east and south of San Francisco, as many as a dozen homes are under construction by Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley staff and volunteers. The regional nonprofit takes its name from Habitat for Humanity International, but operates independently. To make the most of volunteer time and donated money and supplies, the nonprofit has to keep building and renovation projects moving at a fast clip, which can mean last-minute runs to the hardware store to buy extra materials.

“It's a multi-headed beast,” laughs Ben Grubb, construction director for the East Bay/Silicon Valley chapter, of the need to manage dozens of separate projects and carefully coordinate materials, people, and time. This includes tracking expenses for supplies. While large-scale items like lumber and plumbing fixtures are purchased by managers for each project, “the real challenge comes in managing small purchases,” Grubb explains. “Every day, there are little adjustments you have to make — like finding yourself running out of fence boards.”

Then there's the challenge of who is to make these purchases. The mix of volunteers changes daily, Grubb says, and intermittent helpers, while enthusiastic and passionate, may not have the skills to source materials as well as experienced staff. “Volunteers are motivated and smart, but you do have to guard against unwarranted purchases,” he says. “They might buy the wrong items or choose something that's a higher cost than expected.”

Keeping Expenses in Check

To manage expenses, Grubb says project teams try to avoid situations in which employees buy supplies and then request reimbursement. When volunteers are asked to buy supplies, Grubb says, “we’ll provide an exact list of materials they need to get” to avoid purchase of the wrong items.

For many supply purchases, project managers rely on experienced and frequent volunteers with knowledge of the construction team's needs. “We'll select a few volunteers as authorized buyers at specialty vendors,” says Grubb, referring to lumber yards or plumbing supply outlets with specialized materials. Volunteers' names are associated with each purchase, so that expenses are easier to track per project. To get paid back, the authorized volunteers then fill out the organization's standard reimbursement form — the same one used by employees.

Helpful Accounting, Happy Volunteers

By necessity, expense reimbursement comes into play for online purchases, which often can't be made with gift cards or purchase orders. “We have a regular volunteer who does tool repair for us, and he buys parts online from several websites,” Grubb says. The volunteer uses his own credit card for such purchases and then requests reimbursement.

One key to effective expense tracking and happy volunteers is a sympathetic accounting team. “We make sure they're trained in customer service,” Grubb says. “In some ways, volunteers are also your clients, and we want to make it easy to work with us. They're going out of their way to help, and we want to build long-term relationships with them.”

Easy-to-understand reimbursement processes, and easy-to-reach accounting staff, go a long way toward building volunteer loyalty. And loyal volunteers help Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley build houses faster, so low-income people have a home to call their own.

See how the PEX Platform and prepaid cards enable volunteer spending while ensuring compliance. 

Christine Kent brings over 20 years of writing and journalism expertise to her work for technology, consumer and corporate organizations. Her journalism-driven approach enables her to not just write a document, but to find the voice of a client to tell their story in the most compelling way.

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