Garrett Jacobs
Garrett Jacobs

The Architecture for Humanity (AFH) Chapter Network, the collective of the individual chapters previously associated with AFH, has named its first executive director, Garrett Jacobs, a longtime volunteer and active participant at AFH and the Chapter Network. He began his directorship on Jan. 11.

It was just over a year ago when news broke that AFH, the nonprofit organization founded in 1999 by Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr and dedicated to help fundraise and coordinate humanitarian design projects worldwide, would be dissolved and filing for bankruptcy. (Sinclair and Stohr parted ways with AFH in 2013 to pursue other ventures.) The then-57 AFH chapters, comprising more than 20,000 designers and volunteers, were caught off guard by the news, but their day-to-day work on local projects remained largely unchanged because they existed and operated independently of the AFH headquarters. “There was really no investment in the chapters from headquarters in the past,” Jacobs says. “It was hard to tie in anything the chapters were doing with headquarters because they weren’t communicating.”

Jacobs, then as the acting chair, quickly rallied the Chapter Network leadership worldwide. Last year, he says, they established a new mission “to organize local grassroots design coalitions so they can serve their local, marginalized communities.” He helped form an international steering committee composed of chapter leaders to determine whether the group wanted to start a new, united, and self-governing organization together (yes), how to structure the umbrella organization, and what that umbrella organization would do.

The group also secured enough seed funding from the Curry Stone Foundation, a charitable organization based in Bend, Ore., to create a paid executive director position for six months. Jacobs says he offered to apply for the position, but the steering committee voted unanimously to appoint him.

Along with establishing the Chapter Network under its new legal entity—which will be announced along with a new logo and website later this quarter—Jacobs has plenty to do in a short amount of time. “My focus, in the next six months, is to put the leadership and the decision-making pieces in place … so if we don't secure more funding [for my position] beyond the six months, we can keep operating,” he says. “My priority is to make as resilient of a volunteer network as I can.”

Jacobs is actively recruiting a board of directors and searching for leaders for the eight regions in the network, which oversee the now 32 chapters and approximately 11,000 volunteers. “These leaders will be responsible for coordinating communications amongst the chapters in the region, setting priorities, ensuring each chapter is accurately assessing [the needs of] the local cities, and reporting back to the board of directors and myself,” he says.

The work of the regional chapters will help drive the direction of the educational programs that the umbrella network will organize, which is a “big distinction” from its predecessor, he says. “The umbrella organization will not do projects. We exist to support the professional development of our members and the incubation of our local chapters into local nonprofits.” The umbrella organization will not have any project-dedicated funds, he adds. Rather, the chapters will be responsible for funding their own local projects though the umbrella organization will help them establishment partnerships to help further fundraising for their local work. The goal, Jacobs says, is “total transparency from the budget onward.”

Jacobs has combined his interests in design and service for more than a decade. After earning his B.Arch. and M.Arch. from Tulane University—Jacobs moved to New Orleans three days before Hurricane Katrina—he moved to San Francisco and became a volunteer for the local chapter of AFH in 2012. He moved up to being a design fellow and then an outreach coordinator, where he managed the internship program and several construction projects. Though he left AFH in spring 2014 to work with Code for America, he remained active as a volunteer, coordinating activities for the Chapter Network.

When he became acting chair with the Chapter Network last year, also on a voluntary basis, Jacobs was thrilled to work with the community again despite the unfortunate situation of the headquarters’ shuttering. “The most resilient aspect of any organization is the people,” he says. “This is an opportunity to develop our own voice, and to have a platform [on which more] people can develop their skill and talents within the public interest design movement. I don’t think the profession supports it enough, and this is our way of doing that.”