“Seven dollars per square foot,” says Cameron Sinclair, executive director of Architecture for Humanity, as we walk into the organization’s headquarters in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood. A conscientious contractor, he can still name the volunteers who put in the work, donating flooring, lighting, and sweat for the frugal 5,000-square-foot build-out. “We paid them in beer and pizza.”

When the nonprofit organization made the move across the Bay from Sausalito, Calif., to downtown San Francisco in 2007, Cameron Sinclair—a self-declared “chief eternal optimist”—was already a rising star. Maybe even one of the most famous humanitarians in the world, and certainly so within the closed circuit of cause-oriented architecture. Still, Architecture for Humanity employed only a half-dozen full-time staffers, and for all the attention Sinclair received, the organization still felt its mission was misunderstood.

“The rude awakening was that many people saw us as this do-gooder organization,” Sinclair says. “The reality is that we’re a design/build firm with a robust practice.”

It’s doubtful that even Sinclair knows exactly what all Architecture for Humanity does. At a glance, the organization coordinates architects in regions where their services are scarce or distressed. Architecture for Humanity promotes a broad network of young professionals through its design fellowship program and chapter organizations. Through this outreach network—and the requests for proposals it fields for clients as well as collaborations with other for-profit and nonprofit firms—Architecture for Humanity marshalls architectural services for communites struck by conflict, natural disasters, and deficits in resources. And that’s just for starters.

In the 12 years since the organization took root, in 1999, in a 300-square-foot New York apartment shared by Sinclair and Kate Stohr, Architecture for Humanity has grown. Its San Francisco office employs 36 full-time staffers and manages a small army of volunteers—teams that work to alleviate poverty, build community, and address climate change among at-risk populations. The organization has 17 staffers in Haiti alone. Yet it also declines 70 percent of the projects it is pitched—it just can’t get to them.

With its dramatic growth has come a substantive change to the kind of work Architecture for Humanity performs. 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. It’s a view shared by one of their major funders.

“We’re hoping to provide the resources to Haiti to try to create sustainable opportunities for development,” says Veronica Selzler, program advocacy specialist for the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund. The work always seems incomplete. “We’re investing in the long term. We’re investing in programs that won’t need us, ultimately.”

Today, Architecture for Humanity’s bailiwick is as much building loans as building clinics. The organization is looking to assert design as a framework for development for areas that lack even infrastructure. In Haiti, this effort will be measured not in numbers of houses built but in the success or failure of Port-au-Prince as a city. Which means that Architecture for Humanity’s mission is flexible, experimental, and—quite often and for reasons outside its control—seemingly destined to fail.

The mission begins at the vanishingly narrow intersection between design and philanthropy. “There are people who are really good at writing grants and who are terrible at implementing projects. There are people who are fantastic at building projects that have no idea how to write a grant—mainly because they’ve never had to do it before,” Sinclair says. “It kills us when we see someone who’s spent five years, they do a Kickstarter campaign, they do this, they do that, and they finally scrape together $5,000 to do a project—where we could have brought in a public-private partnership and had $50,000 right on the go.”

The way wasn’t always so clear to Sinclair, of course. The Dec. 26, 2004, earthquake off the coast of Indonesia and subsequent tsunami “was the moment we realized we were an organization,” he says. Before the first wave of the tsunami had hit India, Sinclair and Stohr had made contact with local architects there. Sinclair wrote a blog post on Worldchanging, a nonprofit webzine devoted to sustainability, in the hopes of raising $10,000 over the next six months. Within 72 hours, the fledgling Architecture for Humanity organization had mobilized teams on the ground to assess damage and start rebuilding efforts—and surpassed its fundraising goals. By the spring, Sinclair and Stohr had raised half a million dollars.

The experience cemented a few of Architecture for Humanity’s core rules. Always work with a locally licensed architect on each and every built project. Build to code, even if it means building the only legal structure in an area (which has been the organization’s experience in one Kenyan slum). The organization often sends teams to slums, but never to sites with active conflicts. Where Google says, “Don’t be evil,” Architecture for Humanity says, “Don’t work with assholes.”

The tsunami also introduced Architecture for Humanity to the pitfalls it faces with every project. “There are a lot of missed opportunities,” Stohr says, describing the pace of rebuilding. “There’s also a lot of poor journalism. You find that journalists are setting the expectations. You have the media saying, ‘Why aren’t we rebuilding?’ one year after—which they do after every disaster.”

“A big surprise was that to allow solid sustainable community building to happen, we had to be the bank,” Sinclair says. “We had to be the developer—which is what we are now.”

When it is up to Architecture for Humanity to determine which projects to support, the organization finds itself having to decide between proposals to alleviate suffering in post-conflict or post-disaster states. How do you choose? Sinclair doesn’t hesitate. “It sucks.”