Denver's Habitat for Humanity CEO builds on MBA

Lessons from CU Denver Business School continue to help alumna Heather Lafferty lead one of Denver's biggest nonprofits

January 25, 2017
Heather Lafferty with Jimmy Carter
Habitat for Humanity for Metro Denver CEO Heather Lafferty with former president Jimmy Carter.

When Heather Lafferty started at the University of Colorado Denver’s Business School, she couldn’t foresee how valuable what she learned would be, she says now.

Since 2008, Lafferty has led one of Colorado’s largest nonprofits as the CEO and Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver. While fulfilling its mission to help low-income families and individuals become homeowners, in recent years Habitat also has grown into an organization that is a lot like a healthy business. In addition to working with 15,000 volunteers to build, renovate and repair almost 100 homes each year, Habitat also plans residential developments, operates retail stores, offers loans and provides social services.

Since it was founded in 1979, Habitat has worked with more than 700 local families to build and repair affordable homes. For Lafferty, who graduated with an MBA in 2005, that’s a sign of how effective nonprofits can be when they empower volunteers, put donors’ money to good use, and strategically marshal their resources.

“Nonprofit organizations have a tremendous ability to impact society in big and small ways,” Lafferty said. “Nonprofits aren’t just a place for people to do a little bit of good when they feel like it, they’re a place where people can truly make a difference.”

Connecting nonprofits and businesses

That’s something Lafferty has known since she started interning at nonprofits while in college. But the connection between nonprofits and businesses—and how much they can learn from each other—were lessons Lafferty learned at CU Denver’s business school.

When she applied, Lafferty was working in Denver for Habitat for Humanity International. Her job was to be a liaison between the umbrella organization and multiple regional affiliates, such as the one she leads now.

Habitat for Humanity for Metro Denver CEO Heather Lafferty
Heather Lafferty speaks with a future Habitat for Humanity homeowner. Lafferty earned her MBA from CU Denver’s Business School.

Lafferty said she was looking to go back to school to help her career, which she didn’t want to put on hold. She also wanted to stay in Colorado. CU Denver was the only program she applied for.

“They had a top-notch program and it was convenient for my schedule,” she said. “Being able to go to school and get my MBA at night, and then being able to put what I was learning into practice literally the next day, was for me the most important way to learn and understand how to manage and lead.”

Despite that, Lafferty said she felt a little out of place.

“Nonprofit leaders getting an MBA was a unique thing,” Lafferty said. “I was coming from this place of ‘Oh my gosh, I’m just the little nonprofit girl having so much to learn from people at all these big companies, and the people who have so much more experience than I do.’”

That feeling changed one night during a class discussion about attracting, retaining and motivating employees. There was a lot of talk about competitive salaries and benefits.

Nonprofits don’t pay as well as private sector jobs or offer great benefits, yet Lafferty knew they could create teams that were incredibly talented, hardworking and loyal. She began explaining to her classmates how success depends on creating a sense of mission and a healthy culture—a big lesson the business world was just beginning to pick up on.

“I just kind of started sharing, and people had a lot of questions,” she said. “That night I just realized that we just have different experiences, and we have a lot to learn from each other.”

Lafferty calls it her “a-ha moment,” and the lesson has stayed with her.

“Being able to put what I was learning into practice literally the next day, was for me the most important way to learn and understand how to manage and lead.”

– Heather Lafferty

“We are all running businesses. Our bottom lines might look different, but we’re all running businesses and working with people, so we have a lot to learn from each other,” she said.

A CU Denver MBA put to use

A look at Habitat’s most recent annual report shows just how much it’s like a business. The nonprofit ended 2015 with more than $37 million in net assets, and took in $18.6 million in revenue, contributions and other support. It operates five thrift stores, which had sales of earned nearly $4.8 million.

Lafferty notes that, to many people’s surprise, Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver is one of the area’s largest residential builders, and it’s big enough that in 2016 the Denver Business Journal ranked Habitat the 21st largest local homebuilder.

Any organization of that size needs a lot of people to function, and Habitat has about 100 paid employees on its staff, in addition to 15,000 volunteers.

While the business aspects of leading a large nonprofit would be familiar to an executive or manager, the ultimate goal and purpose are different, Lafferty said. Habitat’s balance sheet doesn’t measure how successful it is at achieving its mission.

A better measure is how many people Habitat is working with to achieve their dream of home ownership. In 2015, Habitat served more than 100 families, and 29 bought their first homes through the homeownership program. Nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator has given it four out of four stars each of the past three years.

“There are a lot of layers to Habitat, and I think one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed it so much is that it is a complex organization that aligns itself into a single, very focused mission,” she said.

While Lafferty’s dedication to Habitat for Humanity predates her time at the business school, looking back she sees how important her experience at CU Denver was in helping her learn the skills needed to lead a complex organization.

“It was the right place for me at the right time,” Lafferty said. “What CU Denver allowed is a real-world education, and I think the school is only getting better.”