Homeless Hotspots “Charitable Experiment” Pushes Ethical Boundaries of Social Enterprise

March 13, 2012; Source: New York Times

Imagine the moment of conception for an idea that has become one of the most talked-about “products” of this year’s South by Southwest technology conference. It might have gone something like this: “Let’s pay homeless people a small daily stipend, say $20, to walk around the conference and pitch our wireless hot spot promotion. They could be human, roaming Internet hot spots! Wearing shirts that say as much! As an incentive for being proactive, they could even keep what’s donated to them in exchange for free temporary access to our hot spots. It’s a win-win. Way cheaper than a marketing campaign for us, and a paid volunteer gig for the down and out . . .” Really?

This idea was the brainchild of BBH Labs, the innovation arm of the BBH international marketing agency. To BBH’s credit, they vetted the idea with a local nonprofit shelter, Front Steps, whose development director helped fine-tune the program design to tap the “entrepreneurial spirit” of its clients. And at least one of the thirteen “volunteers” is enthusiastic about the deal. Clarence Jones said, “I love talking to people and it’s a job. An honest day of work and pay.”

Here’s a private company partnering with a nonprofit to empower entrepreneurial action that generates income for those who have little. Sounds like a classic social enterprise. So why does this feel like social enterprise gone terribly wrong?

Certainly, it’s not unprecedented for people to sell themselves as product displays. In the golden age of department stores, live models graced lavish window displays. Today, waving people wear sandwich boards on street corners, promoting mattress sales, pizzas and tax preparation services. Oh wait—these people are paid at least minimum wage by law! So that’s one key difference. Furthermore, the irony of poor people paraded about as a mobile product for the well-off is too much for critics. In the words of Wired.com blogger Tim Carmody, the project sounds like “something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.” The contrasting circumstances are inhumane to ignore.

BBH’s Saneel Radia is surprised by the criticism. “We saw it as a means to raise awareness by giving homeless people a way to engage with mainstream society and talk to people,” Radia says. “The hot spot is a way for them to tell their story.” Whatever the intent, however, the result appears to be an insensitive, exploitative commodification of people in need. Let’s draw some clearer ethical boundaries for social enterprise experiments from this. Really. –Kathi Jaworski

  • Eleri Morgan-Thomas

    This story turned up in Australia and we were asked to comment here at Mission Australia (a large national charity) We didn’t like it. Here’s what we said on our Facebook page [LINK=https://www.facebook.com/#!/MissionAust]https://www.facebook.com/#!/MissionAust[/LINK]

    This week you may have read about the homeless hotspot stunt at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive festival in Texas. Today’s ZDNet.com.au asked if this idea (homeless people as mobile wifi carriers) could work in Australia. The ide…a didn’t appeal to any of the telcos asked, while Mission Australia spokesman Paul Andrews called it “nothing more than a marketing stunt” that had nothing to do with helping the homeless. Some, like Homelessness Australia, can see the benefits if handled the right way. Read what they had to say at http://www.zdnet.com.au/would-homeless-hotspots-work-here-339333758.htm

  • Allison Lamb

    Thank you for diving deeper than the initial shock of hearing “homeless” and “hotspot” in the same idea.

    I am a member of a young, non-profit professional fellowship group that frequently debates non-profit strategy and social entrepreneurship possibilities. So naturally, this topic dominated our email threads this week. As it did a good number of America’s.

    We initially criticized what was easiest to criticize (the face-value of the [I]homeless[/I] being “used” as hotspots), but we soon delved into the “why” of the campaign. And we all sighed with relief that this issue had just been blown out of proportion to great extent by a lack of research and question asking

    I can buy that it was intended to be an experiment in modernizing the Street Newspaper model, as states their webiste. I like the idea of adapting the model to addgress to the dying influence of print news and the growing use of digital media. Hotspots are just more relevant than newspaper stands/distributors.

    So I applaud the experiment – whether it should be accepted depends on its long term success. People can instead decide to donate directly to a shelter. But one can’t deny it forces many people to think on the issues of commoditization, minimum wage, entrepreneurial ethics, and perhaps most greatly the human faces of homelessness and make a decision/donation either way – would they have done that before? On the awareness end – that is pretty successful.