Russell Pierce returned to his roots for full engagement in affordable housing
Published: August 4, 2022 / Author: Brendan O’Shaughnessy
Russell Pierce (MNA ‘14) was an undergrad at Wake Forest University when tribal massacres in Rwanda created a refugee crisis. He visited a refugee camp in January 1996 as an observer for the United Methodist Church’s work through its outreach arm, Global Ministries.
“It was just mind blowing,” said Pierce, who went on to receive a master’s degree in divinity from Duke University and a Master of Nonprofit Administration from Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. “Eight hundred thousand refugees – the need is completely and utterly, incomprehensibly overwhelming.”
Ultimately, the group of college students raised funds to house 72 children. They also came away with a lesson that would stay with Pierce for life: Learn to trust that God was calling him to do his one part well – and God would call others, too. Even as he went on to ordination as a Methodist minister and parish, he never forgot that experience or Global Ministries, always dreaming of working there some day.
Pierce, 47, got that chance in 2017 when a new job with Global Ministries’ fundraising program took him and his family to Atlanta. The program brought in nearly $50 million annually–a successful effort by any standard. Yet Pierce soon knew something was missing.
“It was fun and there was lots of travel. But sometimes people of my age get to the second rung on their ladder and realize they put that ladder on the wrong wall,” he said. “I truly missed being able to be really engaged in a community.”
As a pastor in Asheville, N.C., he was on the greenway commission that guided where to put multimodal paths, as well as the board of Meals on Wheels. In High Point, N.C., he was on the board of United Way, and in South Bend, a local grocery co-op.
So when the opportunity arose to return to his native North Carolina Research Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill), Pierce already knew the area’s affordable housing challenge and was ready to jump right in. Now the executive director of Housing for New Hope in Durham, he said his latest rebuilding project showcases a serious national challenge in housing – rapid gentrification.
“As an agency, we’re unusual in a couple of ways,” Pierce said. “Oftentimes, you have an agency that will just do homeless services, or just affordable housing. But from the time we were founded, we really were bringing those two pieces together.”
Pierce was born near the Triangle in Burlington, N.C., but soon moved to upstate New York. As his family moved back to the Triangle, IBM also transferred employees there, and he went to high school with many of his New York classmates – an early harbinger of tech companies migrating to the region.
“I sensed the call to the ministry, originally, when I was in high school,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that I accepted that until I was in college.”
His grandfather was a Catholic and a Notre Dame fan, but he was raised in his mother’s United Methodist Church. He said the denomination’s founder, John Wesley, believed in personal holiness but also a social holiness that involved addressing the world’s challenges.
From the start, he found himself pulled outside the walls of the parish toward charitable work in the world. In the middle of seminary education, he served for a year in Stratford upon Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown in England.
He met his wife Kathy at Duke, who was also studying to be clergy, though she further trained as a Benedictine spiritual director. After seminary, they landed at a United Methodist college in South Dakota, where Pierce began to learn about fundraising. Their next stop was a mission center in Kentucky that he realized was unsustainable and needed to shut down.
During an eight-year stint as a pastor back in North Carolina, the Pierces had two children, and he decided to further his education, scanning MBA and nonprofit management programs in the state and beyond.
“I looked at Notre Dame and thought, ‘OK, if I want to just serve in the region, I probably should just do the local school. But if I really am wanting to do something at a larger level, Notre Dame makes more sense.”
He liked that the Notre Dame nonprofit program was housed in the business school, and that it had a strong faith connection even if he wasn’t Catholic.
“When I met the students, I thought these are students that I’m going to learn from while I’m learning from the professors,” he said. “The people I met and the work that they were doing already was really impressive.”
Pierce earned his Notre Dame degree in nonprofit administration in 2015 and worked for several years in nonprofit fundraising at large missions serving around the world, culminating in his one-time dream job at Global Ministries in Atlanta. He said he traveled constantly, rarely getting to see the long-term impact of his work.
“I would never have thought I would end up at Global Ministries and just be there two years, but it became clear it just wasn’t a fit,” he said. “I guess sometimes there’s those things you need to do to get to what you’re most called to do.”
By this time, Pierce had gained a reputation as a turnaround expert with the business sense that could make an organization sustainable. He found a new challenge back home in North Carolina.
“There was this amazing opportunity to do this rebuilding at Housing for New Hope,” he said. “So that partially made it attractive because there were clearly good bones here. Now, it’s almost indescribably challenging three years in, with the gentrification going so quickly here.”
Durham’s history has brought these challenges, ironically, through opportunity. Pierce said the city has a unique ethos because it has long been very diverse. Blacks and whites each make up about 40% of the population. As the region became a tech hub driven by its three major universities during the past decade, companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook decided to move divisions there, migrating thousands of jobs.
Because almost none of the positions are entry-level, the moves put pressure on the housing stock without bringing an equally felt economic boon. As housing prices rose, more people turned to renting, driving up prices across the board.
Housing for New Hope had a founder that ran the agency for 23 years. When he stepped down, it struggled through a challenging transition for the five years before Pierce arrived. The community, especially the city, designated it as the primary provider for street outreach, rapid rehousing and temporary supportive services.
Pierce said many of the clients they work with struggle with mental health and substance abuse disorders. The agency’s mission is to end homelessness “one valuable person at a time.”
But Pierce has also pushed the agency to become more involved in affordable housing issues, ranging from landlord engagement to research and advocacy. They recently worked with Duke students to create a State of Affordable Housing and Homelessness in Durham Report. The statistics are startling: a 31% increase in housing costs between 2020 and 2021, and a 292% increase in the number of unsheltered city residents since 2016.
“So for us, it’s building, it’s creative ways to increase housing, continuing to work with landlords,” Pierce said. “With clients, it’s continuing to strengthen supportive services and those partnerships.”
Housing for New Hope is working with a local church to build 35 to 40 affordable units, as well as pioneering a co-housing solution where clients have a room in a shared home. They also hope to work with the city and region to create state laws that require builders to set aside a portion of units as affordable housing, which cities are now prohibited from doing.
Pierce said he has often repeated a point made by Ken Milani, his accountancy professor at Mendoza. While some people think corporate work is harder than nonprofit management, Milani said the corporation can just stop making a struggling product. “We can’t do that with people,” Pierce said. “We have to figure it out. You can’t just shut down like the widget factory.”
He also supports a crime cabinet with the mayor, police chief and other law enforcement officials. Community engagement is his passion, and he believes change will take multiple efforts. It may be working. Pierce said a recent agency event drew so many city council members they had to declare a quorum and put out a public notice.
“This is going to be a different place in 10 to15 years,” he said, “so we’re really going to have to pivot these organizations so that we’re meeting the needs of our clients even better than we’re doing right now.”