Someone is stealing donations.

Dear Ryan,

I work at a transitional housing program for individuals leaving incarceration.

We have a closet where we keep donated items (toiletries, clothing, etc.).

Lately, a lot of the donated items have gone missing. None of the residents will admit to taking them.

What do we do?



So, here’s the thing about working with vulnerable/marginalized/damaged people: Sometimes they do stupid stuff (like steal and then lie about it).

Wanna know why?

They are human.

Humans sometimes do dumb stuff.

This means two things (the second is WAY more important than the first):

1) Your organization’s policies should assume that people sometimes do “bad” things.

In your case this is an easy fix: Put a lock on the donation closet.

More importantly…

2) You MUST guard against growing cynical.

It is very easy to become cynical when the people you are trying to help abuse your trust.

Cynicism grows in our hearts the way ice forms on the edges of a pond in Autumn. Slowly. Quietly.

There is a very dangerous myth (especially in America) that there are two types of poor people:

The “deserving poor” – There are people who have never done wrong, always say ‘thank you’ and smell of roses. They deserve help.

The “undeserving poor” – Everyone else. They do not deserve help.

(As an aside, nonprofits twist themselves in knots to prove to our donors that we only serve “deserving” individuals (e.g. putting lots of pictures of babies and kids in our newsletters). Be careful that you don’t start believing your own marketing.)

You must reject the dichotomy of “deserving” and “undeserving.” Broken people sometimes do stupid/mean/petty things, AND they are still are deserving of assistance.

Reject any ideology that does not allow for the beautiful, sloppy, glorious, ugly, amazing, mean-spirited, kind, complicated mess that is humankind.



Stay in touch

Receive weekly tips from Ryan about how to work with homeless, addicted and mentally ill patrons.