Richard Muñoz didn’t always know he wanted to work in a nonprofit. “If you had asked me at the beginning of my career if I would be where I am now, I would have looked at you and said ‘No, I’m going to be a trial lawyer. I’m going to be the guy on TV who wins the million-dollar cases,’” Muñoz says.
He took a winding path to his current role as assistant general counsel at Buckner International, a faith-based nonprofit that focuses on helping vulnerable children and seniors. After graduating from law school, Muñoz worked at the US Department of Labor for two years before moving into private practice. The latter appealed to him because, once he started a family, he wanted to boost his earning potential.
Then, in late 2006, a representative from the Baptist General Convention of Texas approached Muñoz, asking for help on a new program for undocumented immigrants. In those years, the federal government was having conversations about immigration reform, and churches in immigrant-heavy Texas wanted to help their congregants in a lawful way.
The program was called the Immigration Service and Aid Center project, or ISAAC, and Muñoz describes it as “a collaborative effort between Buckner International and the Baptist General Convention of Texas.” Muñoz used his legal knowledge to help churches understand immigration law and their congregants become accredited representatives who could help undocumented immigrants attain legal residency.
He considers the program a success, in that local churches are now better equipped to help immigrants. “I feel really good about the ISAAC project because it did help raise awareness among churches,” he says.
Around late 2009, the ISAAC project transitioned to a different organization, so Buckner’s CEO offered Muñoz a new opportunity in international operations to help with two things: the Family Hope Centers—family-focused places where vulnerable families can find critical services like job training and counseling— and to work to help orphans find homes. Muñoz says that helping to find homes for orphans, whether through adoption or foster care, is among his most satisfying achievements in international work. That said, when he focuses just on the past year, he’s proudest of two projects in particular: Ventana and 27 & Oak.
In late 2019, Buckner will have its newest senior living facility: Ventana—the Spanish word for “window.”
“It’s kind of a double meaning,” Muñoz says. “It’s a window because, the way it’s designed, basically every independent living department is going to have a really nice view. But it’s also a window because we really want let people see the kind of good care Buckner can provide to seniors in Dallas.”
Muñoz estimates that the construction will cost $140 million, so to raise money for the project, it was financed through tax-free bonds sold by the Tarrant County Cultural Education Facilities Finance Corporation. The proceeds were then loaned to Buckner through a series of covenant documents. The institutional bond-buyers imposed conditions on the project in exchange for their financing, and Muñoz and the rest of the Buckner team would sometimes have to negotiate with these institutions to ensure the Buckner could comply with the bondholder requests.
“What I learned is that these institutional bond-holders are not interested in imposing covenants just to impose them,” Muñoz says. “They want to partner with you because they also want to see the project be successful. The last thing in the world an institutional investor wants to do is to have a project that fails.”
Between the bond-review process and the construction itself, the Ventana project has required the input of a lot of lawyers. The abundance of attorneys has led to some amusing situations, like a bond covenant with a page-long sentence.
“We had four lawyers, and we all couldn’t decide exactly what it meant. I had to diagram the sentence, and eventually we figured out what it meant,” Muñoz recalls with a laugh.
Because many people in the international Family Hope Centers need steady employment to help support their families, they often work as artisans but have a limited market in their home countries and neighborhoods. The 27&Oak project connects them with buyers in larger markets here in the United States. Muñoz considers it a long-term sustainability strategy that enables Family Hope program participants to scale their crafting businesses and break the cycle of poverty.
27&Oak invests in artisans in Latin America and Africa to design, create, and sell handmade items, empowering families to participate in the healing process of their community in the process. Buckner comes alongside the artisans to design the products then purchases the products directly from the artisans to ensure a fair and sustainable wage. That money goes to the artists, who can then invest in equipment for their businesses. “Some of these sewing machines you would find in an antique store,” Muñoz says. “If you’re going to ask a group of artisans to make one thousand purses in a month or something, you’ve got to make sure they’ve got the right equipment.” The proceeds from sales at 27&Oak go right back into the program, making funding for the services that are provided in the Family Hope Centers less reliant on direct donations.
Muñoz and the Buckner team have high aims for 27 & Oak: they hope to make the program self-sustaining within five years and possibly even spin off into a separate organization. As for the Family Hope Center participants themselves, Muñoz would be happy to see them graduate with job training skills and employment opportunities.
“I would love for some of these artisans to go off on their own and say, ‘Hey, we’ve learned a lot here, and we’re going to start a new business,’” Muñoz says.
Even the name 27 & Oak embodies the organization’s mission, and it comes from the story of Buckner International’s founding. While beneath an oak tree, pastor R.C. Buckner resolved to open a children’s home, and he collected $27 from deacons to begin the organization. Today, 27 & Oak realizes Buckner’s goal of caring for children and families.
Congratulations to Jose Lopez, NIGMS IRMB CIO, on this well-deserved honor. LCG’s strong partnership with NIGMS is focused on enhancing IT infrastructure stability, transparency, and efficiency through process and technology innovation. Jose’s strategic leadership amplifies the results of this mission for all of NIGMS.