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Jeff Rutt finds success applying business principles to charity

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Lancaster County business owner Jeff Rutt, right, visits Eddisa, who sells charcoal for a living, on a 2010 trip to Rwanda. Eddisa is a client of Hope International, one of two interconnected nonprofits Rutt founded.
Lancaster County business owner Jeff Rutt, right, visits Eddisa, who sells charcoal for a living, on a 2010 trip to Rwanda. Eddisa is a client of Hope International, one of two interconnected nonprofits Rutt founded. - (Photo / )

Although he started two nonprofits, it would not be inaccurate to say that everything Jeff Rutt does is business-centered.

That's because he's convinced it's the best way to help people.

"We call ourselves the uncharity," Rutt says. "Instead of giving gifts, we focus on going alongside people."

Rutt didn't always see things that way. He used to be involved in many traditional short-term missions efforts. Then, on one trip to Ukraine not long after he started his homebuilding business, Keystone Custom Homes Inc., a leader there told him the gifts weren't really helping. His local congregation had been sending containers of food and medical supplies to a church there.

"It was what I call today 'toxic charity,'" Rutt says. Then he recites a five-step progression from the book by that name illustrating what handouts can foster in recipients: Appreciation, anticipation, expectation, entitlement and, finally, dependency.

Trying to find a better ministry model, Rutt discovered the concept of microfinance and, before long, Hope International was born.

"We started very small. My initial vision was to take the container project and turn it into a way that was not creating dependency and entitlement," Rutt said. "What we realized was, this was a really good idea, and thousands of people were very interested in the opportunity."

That interest, in turn, led to the creation of Homes for Hope, a sister nonprofit that raises funds by organizing businesses in the construction community to build a home on a largely pro bono basis, then sell it and donate the proceeds.

"He reached out to some of his competitors right there in Pennsylvania who joined with him," says Jack Nulty, who is now executive director of Homes for Hope. "It's become the building industry's answer to global poverty. There are several things that they love about it. One of the key things is that they can do what they do best, which is build homes, and then turn around and use that to fund microloans that help people do what they do best, to provide for their families."

"It's not like I laid this out as a strategic plan of some kind," Rutt says. "It was one foot in front of the other, step by step, just saying, 'OK, that worked.'"

Rutt also emphasizes that bringing good people into the organizations has been pivotal to their successes. For example, he says, Hope International would not be where it is today if Peter Greer, its president and CEO, had not come on board in 2004 with an extensive microfinance background and passion for the cause. And Larry Wisdom has been president of Keystone Custom Homes since 2007.

"I've always been a very strong believer in delegating," Rutt says. "I try, as much as possible, to allow others to flourish and use their skills and abilities."

Rutt himself is still involved in all three organizations. His goal, he says, was to split his work time evenly between the business and the nonprofits by the time he was 50; that was five years ago, and he hasn't quite gotten there, with Keystone still claiming about 60 percent. But he's still trying.

Asked what he would say to other business leaders about making a difference, Rutt says it can be a lot simpler than starting a nonprofit.

"Look at the opportunities right around you. Focus on using your gifts and resources," Rutt says. "I think so many times we as business men and women focus so much on our business work that we wall off the charitable side. We check off whatever dollar amount we feel comfortable with, and that's it. I really believe that we should do the same due diligence and have the same focus on the stewardship and efficiency and effectiveness of those resources as we do with our business."

And, he says, don't wait to start.

"You're never too young to start thinking about it. I was 40 when I started down this track," he says. "What struck me after these past 15 years is how blessed I am that I started that track at 40 and not 65."

What Rutt started

Jeff Rutt had a busy decade in the 1990s, starting a business and then two interlinked nonprofits.

Keystone Custom Homes Inc.

What: Construction business

Started: 1992

Other leader: Larry Wisdom, president

Range: Lancaster, York, Dauphin, Cumberland, Chester and Lebanon counties

Notable accomplishments:

• Only builder named America's Best Builder three times by Builder Magazine with the National Association of Home Builders

• The area's largest locally owned homebuilder

• 2012 revenue of nearly $79 million

• A percentage from each Keystone Custom Homes sale goes to Hope International

Hope International

What: Faith-based nonprofit with a holistic approach to poverty alleviation, including microfinance, community empowerment initiatives, and small and medium enterprise development

Started: 1997

Other leader: Peter Greer, president

Range: 17 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia

Notable accomplishments:

• A 96 percent repayment rate to date

• More than 2 million loans and 565,000 active clients

Homes for Hope

What: Nonprofit that works within the building industry to create income-generating projects to support Hope International and like-minded organizations

Started: 1998

Other leader: Jack C. Nulty, executive director

Range: Nine states, working with affiliates of the National Association of Home Builders

Notable accomplishments:

• 90 homes built, involving more than 6,000 trade partners

Consequential reading

When Jeff Rutt talks about his business and nonprofit career, books loom large. Asked about pivotal moments and what prompted his actions, he repeatedly says, "I read a book around that time."

These are the books he cites:

"Halftime: Moving from Success to Significance" by Bob P. Buford

"When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor ... and Yourself" by Steve Corbett, Brian Fikkert and David Platt

"Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)" by Robert D. Lupton

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