Meet a CEO: Martin Thomas from Habitat for Humanity

Approx Reading Time-11The brain behind Habitat for Humanity, an organisation building homes in the Asia Pacific, speaks with TBS about their difficult, yet necessary charitable work.



Please tell the audience a bit about your career journey that has led you to become CEO of Habitat for Humanity.

I started my career as a journalist initially with The West Australian newspaper but eventually worked for more than a decade with News Limited papers The Australian and The Courier-Mail. Journalism was an amazing career, I had the privilege of interviewing (or at least attending press conferences) with the likes of Bill Clinton, Paul Keating, Victor Chang, Kerry Packer and many others. But despite these experiences and regularly watching All the Presidents Men I eventually felt the impact I was making as a journalist was minimal. I was more a spectator than an actor.

Just over a decade ago I landed a role with World Vision Australia, I subsequently held roles with UNICEF, World Vision International (based in London) and Mission Australia. In that time I have fled shooting in the Gaza Strip, investigated the use of child labour in the cocoa industry in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, helped in disaster zones and even put my hand to building a home for a family in Cambodia.
It has been life-changing and the resilience and dignity that people, who suffer the most devastating poverty and injustice, display is humbling and a constant reminder to me to put our “first world problems” like traffic jams or a parking ticket, into perspective.


What do you believe is the biggest benefit for corporates to get truly involved in with Habitat for Humanity does, rather than just donating funds?

Deep down, people want to do something that makes a difference. As our lives pan out we more often than not become accountants, marketers or managers rather than astronauts, firemen or aid workers. But when workers in a company get involved in helping a community, where people struggle with poverty and homelessness, they get this sense of making a difference. Especially when they get their hands dirty.

She was standing outside her new brick home which had been built for her by a team of Habitat for Humanity volunteers. The transformation was extraordinary. Her family was safe and healthy, her kids were all in school and she had started a small business out of her new home selling Khmer coffee.

We recently had 130 senior partners of auditing and advisory firm, Grant Thornton, hold their national conference in Cambodia and during the day they worked with poor families to help build 12 houses. Their fundraising helped hundreds of more in the same community.

Their CEO said the trip was transformational for many of his managers and strengthened their leadership, communications and cooperation. But he said it also helped customers see their brand in a new light. It actually ended up helping them win new business from firms that have a strong focus on corporate social responsibility.

We now have many other corporates considering similar Global Village trips. They understand it’s an experience that develops their staff, adds depth to the brand and can make a lasting difference in the lives of people who face challenges so far beyond what most of us experience in Australia.


What inspired the Rock the House concept?

Rock the House really did come as a result of a conversation with the Baby Animal’s Suze DeMarchi. She had been on a Global Village build with Habitat for Humanity many years ago. So as they were approaching their 25th anniversary as a band, they decided they wanted to do something completely different. So the idea was born, to build 25 houses, one for every year the band has been together.

And so in October the band and hopefully 200 to 300 others will join me in Yogyakarta to help poor families build the 25 houses that will change their lives.
It is a massive project and one we are really excited about. And there is still time for people to join us for this life changing build.

For more details go to:


A lot of people understand the amazing work Habitat for Humanity does in regards to building homes but what are some other initiatives you would love readers to know about?

Many people know of Habitat for Humanity because they or someone they know has volunteered to build a house overseas with us. We send almost 600 Australians every year to house builds in countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, India and many other countries.

But the volunteer work is just the tip of the iceberg. Habitat for Humanity believes everyone deserves a decent, safe place to live. In the last 40 years we have built one million houses and now we are really ramping up, hoping to help 15 million families into better housing in the Asia Pacific alone by 2020.

As well as building houses, we also help communities recover from natural disasters, or even better, help them prepare before natural disaster strikes.


What is the most inspiring aspect of your role on a day to day basis?

The most inspiring aspect of my role is the people you meet. There are the people who support our work, the pensioner who gives what she can, to a CEO who understands the good that their influence, expertise and funding can make in a world where people – both here in Australia and overseas – don’t have a safe, decent place to call home. It is also inspiring to see the change people can make in their lives and in the lives of their family if they just get a little help.

I recently met Hatsavoen when I was on a trip to Cambodia. For more than 13 years she lived with her family – her disabled husband and eight children – in a makeshift structure built of palm leaves, squatting on a vacant city block in Phnom Penh – across the road from the Australian Embassy.

When I met her, she was standing outside her new brick home which had been built for her by a team of Habitat for Humanity volunteers. The transformation was extraordinary. Her family was safe and healthy, her kids were all in school and she had started a small business out of her new home selling Khmer coffee.


What advice would you give other CEO’s looking to understand the NFP space, or have their company align well with an initiative like Rock the House?

I think a partnership between a corporate and a not for profit must be based on mutual benefit. A corporate can’t just base their involvement on random philanthropy, it must provide a unique and fulfilling opportunity for their staff, it must enhance their brand and provide a point of difference to their clients and potential new clients.

But likewise, it must be more than just public relations or an activity to enhance the bottom line. A company must be able to align with the cause and understand how it can be part of the solution.

For Habitat for Humanity Australia, we are seeking to help people in need in to housing and to help them when or before natural disaster strikes. We have successful partnerships with building companies, engineers, architects, travel agents and even insurers and actuaries (who understand the impact of disasters). More generally we have partnerships that align with an organisation’s geographic footprint. A company with operations in Manila will be more concerned to help those in that community find access to decent housing.

Overall, if a company believes they can be part of helping solve some of the world’s problems and help those less fortunate than themselves then it’s a great place to start a conversation with an organisation like Habitat for Humanity.


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