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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

An Anonymous Benefactor for a Homeless Shelter

Anita Varma

Anita Varma is the assistant director of Social Sector Ethics as well as Journalism & Media Ethics.

Consider the case below. Apply the framework to reach a decision about whether you would accept the gift in question. Then, explain how you would justify your decision to stakeholders. 

Homelessness and housing instability are on the rise, and nonprofits that attempt to address the housing crisis are struggling to meet demand for services. You are one of five staff members at a nonprofit organization that offers shelter to families with young children. Most residents of the shelter have been evicted and have nowhere to go due to soaring rent costs in the area.

Your role is not exclusively focused on fundraising, but part of your position involves external relations and responding to inquiries to build relationships. Your background is not in fundraising, and you’re largely learning on the job.

You receive a call from a donor who tells you her name but urgently asks to remain anonymous for the purposes of any notes or logs you create. She wishes to remain anonymous because she has been recently implicated in a corporate embezzlement scam, and a trial is pending. The alleged corporate embezzlement scam took place overseas, and has been covered in the global business press for months.

You recognize her name from the coverage, and start to hesitate about whether it would be wise to continue speaking with her. She senses this, and quickly explains that she has resigned from the corporation and is trying to get her assets in order. She feels terrible about what has happened overseas, and she is uncertain of what her punishment will be once the trial concludes. She knows she would like to arrange to make a gift as quickly as possible to an organization doing great work for the community – which is why she is calling you.

She understands that more and more people are experiencing homelessness and housing instability, and so she offers a gift that would cover physically expanding the shelter and shelter amenities, and would also cover staff and a substantial portion of overhead costs for the next three years.

A gift of this size has never been offered to the shelter before, and would make a huge difference in the number of families served and the working conditions for staff members. She only asks that you never reveal her name, because she does not want her name associated with the gift.

Given that the embezzlement happened in a different country and was not about housing, does the donor’s involvement in that scandal matter?

If the identity of the donor were one day revealed, would you use the same justification for your decision as if the donor remained anonymous? 

Should nonprofit organizations accept gifts on the condition of anonymity?

Mar 19, 2020


For more information, please contact:

Joan Harrington
Director, Social Sector Ethics

More on Social Sector Ethics