Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Homeless at the Door: A Nonprofit Challenge

By Jessica Silliman

Sam Sullivan had graduated in communication from Santa Clara University five years ago and had been in several different types of jobs ranging from journalism to public relations. He recently switched industries and now worked in the non-profit sector with a local, religiously affiliated organization. The organization had a homelessness help center where, during a set two hours each day, homeless men and women could come to receive basic necessities, such as toiletries.

As the administrator of fundraising, Sam worked in the back of the office writing grants and processing donations. He noticed that many times each day, homeless people would ring the doorbell after the specified "pick-up" hours between 10am and 12pm. The woman in charge of tending to the homeless people refused to operate outside of the restricted hours. Though answering the door was never Sam' s job, he felt that denying the people help was inconsiderate and harsh. The supplies were always available in the office and he saw no reason to ignore their needs if they took the time to come.

"I just felt horrible ignoring them outside the designated hours," said Sam. "I didn't think it was right to just pretend we weren't there to help them."

Sam became so frustrated that he answered the door a few times each day during the off hours. Sam knew that this practice infuriated his boss-though he had not spoken with her directly, he saw the dirty looks she gave him when he answered the door and he had heard about her frustrations from other colleagues. She was a huge proponent of the designated hours and she felt that they were necessary because their organization only had limited funds-they couldn't keep someone at the door all day long. She felt Sam's practice was only encouraging homeless people to come during "non-operating" hours to avoid long lines.

Instead of approaching Sam about the issue, she pushed extra work on him and often forced him to stay late by giving him extra tasks.

"At one point she said, 'Since you're spending time helping all these people, you should stay late to finish these projects.'"

Despite the consequences, Sam continued to offer the homeless people help when they rang the doorbell. Two weeks later, his boss quit. When the new boss was hired, Sam approached him about the restricted hours and he said that he would look into changing the system. Sam left the company before the new boss changed the rules.

Discussion Questions:

  • Do you agree or disagree with the organization's policy to restrict "pick-up" hours for the homeless to two hours per day?
  • Do you agree with how Sam responded to the situation?
  • Do you think his boss treated him fairly or unfairly?
  • Do you think Sam's personal convictions about serving the homeless should replace the policy of the nonprofit for which he works?

Jessica Silliman was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

June 2007


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