The Nonprofit Ethicist | Fuzzy Math and Scarce Resources

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Editors’ note: This unsigned story turned up in the Ethicist’s electronic inbox as a posting to a discussion group. Traditionally the Nonprofit Quarterly does not publish anonymous letters, but the letter is in the public domain and the problem is regrettably all too common.

Dear Nonprofit Ethicist,

Along with several social-service agencies, I attended a United Way forum, and each entity gave its updates. One director asked everyone to call her and report on each homeless person he or she saw the following day. (It was nationwide census day.) Later I walked to Rotary with someone from another agency and I wondered aloud, “What if more than one individual reports the same residentially challenged person?” She replied, “Fine;? then our community would receive more funding.” This kind of attitude creates animosity and cynicism among many in the public—myself included.

Who Dat?


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Dear Who Dat?,

Right: sloppy data gathering opens the door to even more cynical and deliberate gaming of the system, which results in a misallocation of scarce public resources and poor service to the homeless. Someone in another community may wind up sleeping in a doorway because your local agencies got money that should instead have gone to these organizations. Bad management almost always creates ethical dilemmas and always leads to bad policy. I presume that you called her out.

Woods Bowman is a professor of public service management at DePaul University.

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