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  • Writer's pictureHabitat for Humanity's Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter

Freedom, Trust, Agility: The Hallmarks of the Shelter Venture Labs

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

Following the previous blog about how TCIS has leaned into complexity, this blog focuses on key factors that local offices have found critical to their success. Having the autonomy to make context-relevant decisions about how change unfolds in a specific country or community has been essential for local offices. The trust of funders has allowed the local officers to follow where the system is telling them change is possible, as opposed to pre-defined indicators. Lastly, agility, or the focus on learning and adapting based on local dynamics, has allowed local offices to move with local conditions keeping them relevant and effective over time.


Erika and Hermes stand in front of their newly completed home on the outskirts of Lima, built with the support of Guardian Constructor members. Guardian Constructor is a platform, launched by the Shelter Venture Lab in Peru, which connects families to market actors providing all the services and supports needed to build a quality home – financing, architecture and engineering services, vetted masons and legal support.

The five Shelter Venture Labs of Habitat for Humanity’s Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter have always followed a decentralized management structure. This was a conscious decision by the Terwilliger Center’s leadership in order to better identify, engage with and respond to market needs. As a result, over the past five years each Lab has evolved with different specializations and characteristics.

Recently, we asked the Lab leads in India, Kenya, Mexico, Peru and the Philippines to reflect back on the past half-decade of learning and growth, and what operational factors contributed most to their impact today. Three keys to their success kept coming up: freedom, trust and agility.


Most Lab leads highlighted that autonomy and lack of pressure to conform were vital contributors to their success. They spoke about how much they valued being given the opportunity to build and nurture their own teams, without having to fit into a predetermined management structure. They can hire as they see fit, whether housing generalists who are willing to learn a new specialty or specialists in specific domains – such as architecture, investment, or media – who can be trained in market systems development.

Most Labs also spoke of the freedom to take the time necessary to study their own country’s complex housing market; to commission research to understand the constraints and opportunities relevant to their industry partners or clients; and then to determine how to best influence market actors’ behavior. Thanks to that freedom, they can innovate and play with new ideas without fear of failure. They can take risks. They can decide for themselves who to partner with and how.

Such freedom is possible because of a commitment to honesty, including transparency about which initiatives are and are not working. This honesty has further fostered the freedom to fail in order to learn. Take water and sanitation for example – a common focus for development actors and critical to the issue of adequate housing. After early efforts in water and sanitation, India’s Lab lead Anoop Nambiar realized that other players in the local market were much better suited to take up this mantle. As Nambiar described it, “we realized that we couldn’t make a dent, so we decided to go closer to our home turf: construction materials.”

Shyam Chander (right), a Terwilliger Center staff member in India’s Shelter Venture Lab, speaks with Ramachandran Ponnusamy, an engineer with PCS Industries, one of the Terwilliger Center’s partners in the manufactured sand market. The Lab has focused on of their work streams on m-sand and alternative aggregates as part of their renewed focus on construction material quality and affordability.


Aligned closely with freedom is the feeling of trust that permeates the work and dynamics of the Shelter Venture Labs. This sense of trust is also reinforced by the Terwilliger Center’s donors– including Ron Terwilliger whose landmark donation supported the center’s creation – who believe in the iterative processes of innovation and learning. Often, their funding is portfolio based rather than project based; is aligned to common goals and values held by Habitat for Humanity; and does not come with elaborate strings attached.

All-in-all, the Terwilliger Center’s donors tend to be less prescriptive than others in the development sector. And at the same time, monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning (MEAL) remains critical to the center’s commitment to learning and the ability to value failure for its lessons. Without the steer of copious donor-mandated indicators by donors, ensuring prioritization and resources for MEAL is therefore an ongoing effort. At its best, program-driven MEAL can foster new metrics and more nuanced ways of measuring but can also compete with program management processes for attention and resources.

The donors trust in Terwilliger Center’s methodology and mandate cascades to all of the Center’s staff and relationships, internally and externally, as each Lab establishes its own country-level partnerships. For Mexico’s Lab lead Fernando Mendoza, this trust has translated into greater autonomy for his team, who are able to organically lean on each other for support and expertise. He trusts that his staff will pool their experience, take on whatever work needs doing, and maintain a beginner’s mindset even when they have their own specializations. Across the five teams, staff have the opportunity to nurture innovative ideas without being micro-managed.


The focus on learning, testing and application – facilitated by the values described above – has enabled the Terwilliger Center to move quickly when initiatives work and pivot away from what’s not working just as quickly. In many Labs, the team uses rapid field testing to get a fast read on an interventions efficacy. While those initial results may not meet the rigor of peer-review, they give the teams enough information to know if, and how, to adjust course.

Agility is a value and skill that many of the Lab leads, including Anoop Nambiar, learned in the private sector, prior to joining the Terwilliger Center. In his own words, Nambiar is “impatient, in search of efficiency, and always seeking to match the speed of [the India Lab’s] private sector business partners.”

The atmosphere of freedom, trust and agility that permeates the Shelter Venture Labs makes them dynamic. Kenya’s Lab lead Jane Otima best captured this sense of forward momentum when she said, “Until someone says stop – keep going!”.

Authored by: Habitat for Humanity Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter

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