In January of 2015, the nonprofit Architecture for Humanity abruptly dissolved after over a decade of initiating humanitarian design projects all over the world. Now a lawsuit contends that its founders and board members mismanaged funds, bringing some larger questions to light: What did the organization accomplish during its 15-year existence? And what, exactly, went wrong?
In a story for Architectural Record, Jenna M. McKnight reports on a $3 million lawsuit filed on behalf of Janina M. Hoskins, a trustee of Architecture for Humanity’s estate, which alleges "gross mismanagement" by the nonprofit’s leadership. Among the lawsuit’s defendants are Architecture for Humanity’s cofounders Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr. (Sinclair and Stohr left the organization in 2013; Eric Cesal, who served as executive director of Architecture for Humanity from June of 2014 until the organization was closed in December of 2014, is not named in the suit.)
Ten high-profile board members are also named, including former AIA president Clark Manus. The defendants have retained a lawyer and will not respond to requests about the complaint.
Founded in 1999, Architecture for Humanity gained global recognition, won virtually every design accolade, and was awarded major grants from high-profile funders like the Clinton Foundation, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' foundation, and Nike. Some of its most famous projects include schools for victims of the Haitian earthquake and football centers across rural Africa in partnership with FIFA.
In press releases, Architecture for Humanity was often said to be "on the ground" days after major natural disasters, working in Japan after the Tohoku earthquake and on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, helping local communities to rebuild more responsibly and resiliently.
But although Architecture for Humanity achieved unprecedented financial success for a design nonprofit—in 2013, the organization’s annual revenue reached an all-time high of $12,365,805—the complaint contends that its funds were not managed properly.
One of the biggest accusations of the suit is that Architecture for Humanity used "restricted" money from grants, which were earmarked for specific design projects, to pay overhead costs, including building out its headquarters in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood. This practice of borrowing from restricted funds—deemed "wholesale looting" by the suit—to pay salaries and expenses reportedly led to its demise. Eventually, the flow of "restricted" and "unrestricted" funds became acutely unbalanced, and by 2013, the organization was operating with a deficit of $1.1 million.
That a humanitarian organization would experience such a catastrophic financial free fall is heartbreaking, but it’s especially troubling in the context of Architecture for Humanity’s mission. This is an organization which was built upon the idea of executing humble projects on lean budgets.
Just how many projects were actually completed seems to be the sticking point for many in the design community. No one can seem to agree on a figure. (In a 2015 Facebook thread, Sinclair estimates "200-225" projects.) The organization has previously claimed that many of their built works have not been photographed because the organization did not hire photographers, or the buildings were located in places that do not lend themselves to easy documentation.
Yet, in a story for Architect in 2011—one of the few in-depth profiles of Sinclair and Stohr—Kriston Capps writes that built works weren’t the intended measure of success: "Sinclair and cofounder Kate Stohr don’t believe that the measure of Architecture for Humanity’s performance is in how much architecture they’ve built for humanity, but by more elusive standards."
That may be true, in a sense. Some of Architecture for Humanity’s work was more systems-based, like drawing up master plans for communities. But this kind of statement is problematic when the organization was accepting grants that were clearly intended to fund physical structures meant to help people displaced by natural disasters.
It’s also at odds with the very explicit goals outlined publicly by Architecture for Humanity. A strategic plan for the organization posted by Sinclair to Slideshare in September of 2013 clearly states that the vision for Architecture for Humanity is to "plan, design, and build beautiful, sustainable spaces" that will "improve the lives of one million people."
Yet even as the organization failed financially, it managed to tackle impressive projects. Ironically, it was during the period of most internal tumult that Architecture for Humanity completed one of its most visible initiatives. In November of 2014, Architecture for Humanity announced the end of its five-year Haiti program: 50 finished projects, including homes, medical clinics, offices, and 13 schools.
In addition, the projects had employed thousands of Haitians, including local architects. A total of 18,000 students, many of them young women, were able to return to their education. That’s real-world impact which cannot be denied.
Architecture for Humanity’s other greatest achievement is its volunteer network— which may have been the organization’s biggest strength all along. Twenty thousand architects have continued to donate their time to the organization through local chapters, and a few weeks after the organization dissolved, 32 of those chapters banded together to create what’s now called the Open Architecture Collaborative, based on Sinclair’s TED Prize-winning idea, the Open Architecture Network, to build an online community to share Architecture for Humanity’s best practices.
The Open Architecture Collaborative remains robust, recently partnering with the AIA’s Housing Knowledge Community and providing open-source tools and collaborative design resources. There’s also Architecture for Humanity UK, a separate nonprofit, which continues to operate.
There’s also no doubting the cultural impact of the "designing for good" movement, where Architecture for Humanity was a progenitor. Over the past decade there’s been increasing visibility for humanitarian design, especially in light of the refugee crisis, and growing support for training and hiring local architects instead of importing globally recognized ones—a cause that Architecture for Humanity has championed. This year’s Pritzker Prize went to Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, who is known for making his affordable housing designs open-source, echoing Sinclair’s 2007 goals for AFH’s Open Architecture Network.
Sinclair—known for his charismatic public persona, ubiquitous presence on the speaking circuit, and embrace of social media—has been transparent about the organization’s troubles, but also claims that he left the nonprofit in good financial shape. He posted Architecture for Humanity’s audited financials after the organization filed for bankruptcy protection in 2015, and maintains that he was never informed of the intent to close the organization.
Sinclair didn’t return my request for comment, but he has very publicly theorized about why Architecture for Humanity failed. In a Facebook thread from January of 2015, Sinclair blamed the architecture industry’s lack of support as the "number-one factor" in the organization’s downfall. "The industry did not donate financially," he wrote. Sinclair encouraged critics to look at other humanitarian design organizations and "ask if our industry really supports this movement."
But it’s also important to note that Architecture for Humanity, and organizations like it, have their fair share of haters who are quick to dismiss this brand of do-gooder design, making Sinclair, the face of the movement, a target for criticism. I would argue that Sinclair enjoyed a level of celebrity that few architects on the planet have achieved—in addition to winning the TED Prize and a National Design Award, he was featured on the Sundance Channel documentary series Iconoclasts with Cameron Diaz, worked with Ben Stiller on the Haiti project, and went on to direct the foundation of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie-Pitt.
In a story about the lawsuit over at the Huffington Post, Lance Hosey, the chair of the LEED Advisory Committee for the US Green Building Council (which is one of the creditors named in the lawsuit), lobs some thinly veiled shade at Sinclair, which he claims is representative of the humanitarian design field at large: "What does continue to surprise and sadden me is when I encounter such arrogance among the leaders of the design industry’s more altruistic movements," he writes. "How can we respect the leader of a social movement who shows little respect for people?" (Update: In a tweet, Hosey says both of these statements are about the industry at large, not about AFH.)
Perhaps Architecture for Humanity’s greatest legacy, whether or not it "succeeded," is simply that it empowered other architects to do this kind of work. The idea of pro bono work is not new, but the organization’s mission, and its books entitled Design Like You Give a Damn, provided architects with a type of manifesto to connect their work to a larger social agenda. That’s the narrative that many designers are clinging to, at least—that the overall intention was good and this is an opportunity to learn from mistakes.
There’s a deeper concern, however, that this lawsuit is a referendum on humanitarian design as a whole—that the implosion of one of the most influential design nonprofits has proven that this kind of work is clearly not financially sustainable.
If the lawsuit’s allegations are true, Architecture for Humanity has done a great disservice to the entire industry by mismanaging its business to the point of collapse, while its leader publicly blamed fellow architects for lack of support. That’s the worst kind of hypocrisy because the repercussions will affect others doing this kind of work, which is already fraught with controversy.
It’s notable that Sinclair’s newest endeavor, which has a strikingly similar vision to Architecture for Humanity, makes no sweeping claims about saving the world, or giving a damn. Instead, its mission is tiny, almost humble, in its aspirations: Small Works.
Correction: Several dates noting the change in AFH's leadership and the closing of the organization have been corrected, as well as the date of AFH's reported deficit, which was $1.1 million in June of 2013, not June of 2014.
This post was updated on August 10 to reflect a change to the list of defendants named in the suit. Clifford Curry has been removed as a defendant because he left the board on July 5, 2012, before the suit’s allegations took place.